All the Law Enforcement You Can Afford

Harris County has abdicated a basic responsibility of government: to provide for the public safety of all. Instead, those who have get and those who don't get the leftovers.

The streets are smoothly paved and lined by large, one and two-story brick homes. The lawns out front are perfectly tended, and many of the houses have swimming pools in the back. Every few blocks there is a tennis court or two. Street signs encourage motorists to drive with caution because "We (heart) Our Kids." Small, tasteful billboards list home prices between $150,000 and $500,000. There's no graffiti here, no fast-food detritus littering Metro bus stops, no unemployed stragglers hanging on the corner.

It's the kind of neighborhood that's eminently hospitable to people with the means to achieve a safe, secure family life, and not much different from the other affluent suburban neighborhoods that dot the FM 1960 area in north Harris County.

This is the neighborhood patrolled by J.T., a contract deputy for the Harris County Sheriff's Department. Although J.T. -- who didn't want his real name used in this story -- is technically an employee of Harris County, in reality the majority of the cost of his salary and equipment is paid for by the homeowners whose property he keeps an eye on.

"I have the easiest job in the world," says J.T., "and I'm not complaining. But I'm only supposed to spend 70 percent of my time here. The fact of the matter is, I never leave.

"Now, [county officials] tell you that I spend 30 percent of my time patrolling [other areas of the county] that can't afford deputies. But the truth is, there are parts of the county that aren't getting any protection. And that's wrong."

J.T. is one of approximately 400 law officers in Harris County who work in the contract deputy program, in which neighborhood associations contract with the sheriff's department or a constable's office for protection. The program accounts for more than half of the county law officers assigned to the streets, and more than half of the contract deputies are concentrated in just two of the eight constable precincts -- primarily in wealthier neighborhoods on the west and north sides.

Established here in 1970, the program remains a law enforcement concept peculiar to the Houston area. Along with Harris County, only Fort Bend and Montgomery counties hire out deputies to work in specific neighborhoods. The use of contract law officers originally was intended as a temporary solution to the lack of law enforcement in far-flung unincorporated areas of Harris County, but in the quarter-century since its inception the program has become an entrenched and politically untouchable scared cow.

It's a system that's described as "welfare for the rich" by one state representative who's trying to outlaw contract deputies. It also has been ruled unconstitutional by the state's attorney general on three separate occasions. Even some of its staunchest defenders would be hard-pressed to defend it as an efficient or cost-effective law enforcement strategy, much less a fair one.

But those who subscribe to the program -- and fear its elimination -- cling to it as their last line of defense against crime. That's understandable, given that Harris County Commissioners Court has mostly abdicated one of the basic responsibilities of government -- providing for the public safety of all. Instead, the county has placed the financial burden of hiring officers on the backs of homeowners who can afford to pay for their own security, leaving less affluent residents with law enforcement leftovers.

The first contract deputies here were part of the sheriff's department and were assigned to the Forest Cove subdivision and the town of Nassau Bay. But a few years later, to fight crime in the county's booming unincorporated areas without having to pay for it, Commissioners Court decided to expand the program.

Led by the late Bob Eckels, the powerful Precinct 4 commissioner, Commissioners Court approved the hiring of more contract deputies and extended the concept even further by assigning them to some of the county's eight constables. Until then, the constables' deputies had functioned mainly as the servers of writs and warrants. But suddenly, constables were in the business of policing. Law enforcement in Harris County would never be the same -- and not necessarily for the better. By expanding the program, the commissioners had found a way to dilute the power of the county sheriff-- and increase theirs -- while putting more officers on some streets but paying for only a fraction of them.

In unincorporated areas today, a subdivision or groups of subdivisions, called "security associations," can acquire the services of a deputy by agreeing to pay 70 percent of the $45,831 the county claims that it costs to put one officer on the street for one year. In the city of Houston, neighborhood civic associations are required to pay 80 percent of the cost.

In return, the communities get the use of the officer for 70 to 80 percent of his time. Harris County, in exchange for underwriting the balance of the bill, theoretically gets the rest of the officer's time to patrol less affluent areas. Theoretically. In fact, critics say, the county is not getting its share of the officers' time and, therefore, taxpayers in other parts of the county are going unprotected while helping to pay for the cost of the security in areas able to afford it. What's more, there is ample evidence that the cost of putting one deputy on the street is considerably more than the county estimate.

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