All the Law Enforcement You Can Afford
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.
"We're paying the tab!" fumes state Senator Mario Gallegos. "My district is paying the tab for these contract deputies. We're being cheated. It's Robin Hood in reverse."
As Gallegos drives his pickup along streets like Irvington and Aldine Mail Route, he points to modest, well-kept homes in neighborhoods punctuated by gang graffiti on fences and walls. His Senate District 6 snakes east to west from Baytown to Spring Branch and north to south from the near-downtown barrios to Intercontinental Airport. It's a heavily Hispanic area with a significant number of Anglos and fewer African-Americans. It also encompasses the district of state Representative Kevin Bailey, who, along with fellow Democrat Gallegos, is sponsoring legislation that would end the contract deputy program.
"It should have never been allowed to grow like this," says Bailey, whose delta-shaped working-class district is loosely bordered by Interstate 45, U.S. Highway 59, the Sam Houston Parkway and the North Loop. "It should have been a temporary deal. Now we've got neighborhoods that are dependent on this, and it is a hard thing to change. Because they get so dependent on it they come to believe that it's right and there's a real strong reaction against anyone who tries to change it. But I know one thing. My neighborhoods don't benefit from it at all."
That's not technically true. One subdivision in Bailey's district, after years of trying to scrape up the money, finally contracted with the county for its own deputy last fall. But Bailey is absolutely on target in his contention that those communities with contract deputies, especially those that have had them for several years, are dead set against giving them up.
Bob Marshall, a longtime resident of Meyerland in southwest Houston, serves as "security director" for the Southwest Security Association, a coalition of his subdivision and the three adjacent ones of Barkley Circle, Marilyn Estates and Barkley Square. The four subdivisions joined together about six years ago to share seven contract deputies among the more than 3,000 homes in the area. Residents figured that having a larger number of deputies spread among the four neighborhoods was more effective than each subdivision contracting separately, Marshall explains.
Although the subdivisions are now under one umbrella group, Meyerland actually plugged into the program in 1982. Marshall, who gives his age as "over 65," got involved about six months later. He oversees the deputies' activities and schedules from a small office about 50 yards from the wooden sign on West Bellfort that lets visitors know they are entering Meyerland. Since the subdivision hired its first deputy, Marshall says, the quality of life in the area has steadily improved.
"Crime, in our opinion, was getting totally out of control," says Marshall, who acknowledges he initially had doubts about the program, especially about the qualifications of the deputies and how much coverage they could provide. But those concerns were quickly allayed.
"After a year, I saw an immediate reduction in crime in every category," he says. "Almost every year since that time crime has decreased." To back his claim, Marshall points to statistics compiled by his security association showing that since 1989, the year the association was formed, burglaries -- the kind of crime that a constant police presence in a neighborhood is most likely to deter -- dropped from 90 to just 14 in 1994.
Of course, according to Houston Police Department statistics, crime has dropped dramatically citywide since 1989. But Marshall believes that contract deputies are partly responsible for that decrease.
"Houston police don't work these neighborhoods because they don't have to," he says, "and we don't mind it. Because when they leave here, they can go to areas that don't have contracts and give them coverage that they would never have otherwise. HPD will hesitate to tell you that, but that's a fact."
HPD does indeed hesitate to say that. In fact, it says exactly the opposite. According to a department spokesman, HPD doesn't factor contract deputies into its deployment of patrol officers.
Beneficiaries of the contract deputy program who live in the unincorporated areas of Harris County make the same argument as their counterparts in the city of Houston. But like HPD, high-ranking officers in the sheriff's department say that they also do not take the location of contract deputies into consideration when deciding how to deploy their 234 non-contract patrol deputies, who are stretched over the 1,154 square miles that comprise the unincorporated parts of the county. (By comparison, HPD covers about half that much territory with ten times the officers, even if the just more than 100 non-contract deputies assigned to the eight constables offices are included in the county's total.) Sheriff's department officials say privately that the contract deputy program does little to free up their regular patrol deputies to protect less affluent neighborhoods.
"I have about one deputy for each 8,000 people out here," says one captain. (According to the FBI, the national average is 2.3 officers for every 1,000 people.) What that means, the captain explains, is that his officers don't have time to patrol. "We run from call to call to call," he says. "Very rarely do we get an opportunity to treat the root problem. You take care of the problem at hand and then send your guys to the next call."
A sheriff's department district deputy -- one who is not assigned to a specific contract area -- agrees.
"I've worked district patrol for two years," says the deputy. "You know how much I patrol? Zero. Because there are always calls backed up. If you don't have a contract, you are not going to get any patrol."
Vernon Landrum knows that fact of life well. For the past seven years the 42-year-old Landrum has lived with his wife and four dogs in small wood-frame house on a tiny lot in unincorporated north Harris County. It's an area that at first glance appears almost rural, if you can ignore the nearby junkyards and cars that constantly whiz past his home on the feeder of the Hardy Toll Road.
Despite the traffic noise, Landrum says he can hear the "war zone" sound of small-arms fire and beatings coming from nearby streets and houses almost nightly. Sometimes the action spills over into his front yard -- sometimes in broad daylight.
"Last summer one day my dogs charged the front gate," recalls Landrum. "There's a man standing in my driveway. He had hold of a woman's hair and was hitting her square in the face with his fist. He slammed her against the fence four or five times. She would try to walk away and he'd grab her by the hair and pull her back. Kicked her twice."
While the assault continued, Landrum went inside and dialed 911. The operator told him that a sheriff's deputy would be dispatched. (Emergency 911 calls made in unincorporated parts of the county are routed directly to the sheriff's department, not the constables.) The sheriff's department, says Landrum, called him back and said that a unit was en route.
"That was at 3:30," says Landrum. "It was almost six o'clock when they got here. By that time the man and woman were gone and all the deputy did was drive by the house."
The situation could have been worse, and every day Landrum fears one will be. He has tried to insure that it won't. When he was president of the Aldine-Westfield Area Crime Watch, the unemployed former school bus driver was interested in hiring a contract deputy. But Landrum says his efforts were doomed from the start, due to a combination of little discretionary income and a large sense of helplessness among the elderly and minority residents who make up the majority of his neighbors.
"In this area out here you will never be able to get the money to hire a contract deputy," he says dejectedly. "These people out here don't have that kind of money."
Landrum says he and his neighbors really shouldn't have to hire their own security; he calls the contract deputy program "extortion" by the Harris County commissioners. And since he sees no trickle down benefit from the hiring of deputies by subdivisions that can afford them, Landrum says he has only one hope -- that the "right to carry" bill now before the Legislature becomes law.
"We have to take care of ourselves and that's all there is to it," says Landrum. "In the short run, I'm hoping that the governor will sign the bill that says you can carry a handgun. Because I am one person who will carry one. This situation you've got with the contract deputy program is already driving people to carry handguns in this neighborhood -- both legally and illegally."
Probably the most vociferous advocate of the contract deputy program is Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack, whose Precinct 4 encompasses much of the west and southwest portions of the county. Radack himself is a former constable whose force was composed largely of contract deputies. A Republican elected to the Commissioners Court to succeed Eckels in 1988, Radack bristles at Kevin Bailey's contention that the contract deputy program is "welfare for the rich." He responds with similar hot-button phraseology, trying to paint Bailey as a knee-jerk, criminal-coddling liberal.
"I think it would be difficult for any legislator to be proud of a bill that they've introduced that's going to be applauded by the criminal element," says Radack. "This bill will take 400 law enforcement officers off the streets of Harris County. This is an unfunded mandate. And if Kevin Bailey really wants to get involved in law enforcement and help protect this area, why in the world doesn't he bring some state dollars down here and bring the highway patrol in if he wants to?"
Although he can readily muster outrage at Bailey's bill, Radack actually seems dismissive of the lawmaker's effort and genuinely unconcerned that it will become law. He's equally dismissive of arguments that the price of the contract deputies are out of reach for poor neighborhoods.
The cost per household, he avers, is "less than a six-pack per week."
It's all a matter of priorities, Radack adds.
In April 1994, Harris County Auditor Tommy Tompkins informed Commissioners Court that the real cost of each contract deputy is $56,970 -- not the $45,831 on which the contracts are calculated. In other words, in addition to the 20 or 30 percent of the contract that was already being subsidized by county taxpayers, the county was also getting stuck for an additional $11,000.
Radack and the other commissioners disregarded Tompkins' figures, contending that the program more than pays for itself through the revenue it generates for the county in traffic tickets and fines from misdemeanor arrests. But that's a difficult assertion to prove. Radack and other defenders of the program point to figures compiled by Bob Hilsher, the systems manager for the eight constable offices, showing that contract deputies from all eight constables and the sheriff's department combined brought in more than $8.6 million in revenue in 1993. That total breaks down to about $21,850 per contract deputy. Considering that the average cost to the county is roughly $20,100 per contract deputy when Tompkins' estimated $11,000 overrun is factored in, then the program would indeed appear to pay for itself with a little to spare -- that is if the county actually gets its share of the contract deputies' time, which some deputies say is not the case.
Tompkins, however, says he's not aware of any foolproof method to pinpoint how much revenue is specifically raised by contract deputies. And figures compiled by the auditor cast doubt on the constables' fiscal claims. In 1994, according to Tompkins' office, justices of the peace in Harris County collected just more than $9.2 million in misdemeanor fines and traffic citations, roughly a mere $600,000 more than the contract deputies supposedly generated on their own the year before. And the total calculated by Tompkins is the result of actions by all the deputies in the county, both sheriff's and constables', contract and non-contract, as well as state troopers, Parks and Wildlife personnel, Metro police, and school district and college law officers.
But even if the contract deputy program is a fiscally sound one, critics like Gallegos and Bailey insist it is still morally wrong; that unless you live in or near a community that can afford its own deputies, you're not getting the protection you deserve. One unintended result of the program, they argue, is that it drives criminals out of the contract areas and into the more vulnerable parts of the county and city.
Not only does Radack disagree, he views the program as something of a philanthropic enterprise.
"In this country you're always going to have people who are willing to spend extra money that benefits more than themselves," the commissioner says. "And certainly that's the case with the contract deputies. Contract deputies benefit far more than just the people who are giving.
"So that means that if there's a guy from Crown Plumbing that's working in that protected neighborhood, or whether it's the mailman or a Gallery Furniture deliveryman, or whoever it is, whenever they come there, they are receiving a benefit because some people decided to give something."
Most of the close to 200 contract deputy contracts (some contracts provide for multiple deputies) belong to subdivisions and civic associations located in north and west Harris County. With 25 deputies, Kingwood -- a planned community in the northern-most reaches of the county -- far and away contracts for the most protection. There, and in other neighborhoods that rely on the program, the warning sirens have been sounded and the residents are aware that life as they know it is under attack.
That concern was what drew close to 100 people to a small courtroom in north Harris County earlier this month for a meeting of the Cypress Creek United Civic Associations. "Harris County Under Siege -- The Contract Deputy Program" read the fliers promoting the gathering. Among the speakers was Precinct 4 Constable Dick Moore, who oversees 125 contract deputies -- almost one-third of the total -- in a precinct that stretches across nearly half of unincorporated Harris County. Moore, who was first elected to office in 1981, pointed out to the angry homeowners that without contract deputies he would have only six deputies to patrol the 540 square miles in his precinct.
"This is a case of something's working good, so let's fix it," Moore said of efforts to do away with program. "If this program is destroyed your taxes are going out of sight, or we're going to be at the mercy of every outlaw that comes out of the city of Houston." Somewhat surprisingly, several of the homeowners at the meeting acknowledged that there are parts of the county that are getting little or no police protection. Some also indicated they would be in favor of higher taxes -- and the abolition of the contract deputy program -- if that revenue would be used to hire enough deputies to insure adequate law enforcement countywide. But they were adamantly opposed to any change in the program until another system is in place.
David Fretwell, who sits on the board of the Oakwood Glen Civic Association in northwest Harris County, would prefer a comprehensive countywide security plan rather than the current helter-skelter deployment of deputies. And he's willing to pay more in taxes rather than continue to pay for a contract deputy.
"The need is there," says Fretwell, "and it's funded either one way or another. So why shouldn't it be funded through a central government rather than individual subdivisions? That would lessen the controversy in terms of equity."
However, others at the civic associations meeting were not quite as generous as Fretwell. Indeed, some of those on hand let it be known that they are not pleased with neighborhoods not willing to make the same financial sacrifice.
"It's not a matter of the rich versus poor, it's a matter of civic organization and putting your money on things that count -- motherhood, apple pie and homes," says Kay Rosenquist, the security coordinator for a northwest subdivision with five deputies. "It's very frightening to think you may become a victim just because someone doesn't want you to have a program. It's a desperate situation."
In addition to coordinating security for her own neighborhood for a decade, Rosenquist is a volunteer paramedic for the Cypress Creek EMS and president of the Northwest Security Coordinators, an association of 33 neighborhood coordinators. Although no one suggests that Rosenquist herself is unqualified to oversee security in her neighborhood, some law officers believe it is unhealthy and perhaps even dangerous to allow untrained civilian security coordinators to basically be in charge of law enforcement personnel.
"These people think they have their own little police forces," says one former contract deputy who worked in Precinct 4 and was one of several deputies who spoke to the Press on the condition of anonymity. "They think, 'I am now in charge of some policemen and, man, I'm going to use them like I really want to use them.'"
"Many of them are housewives," adds a current contract deputy. "Now they have power. They can tell a police officer what to do. They can tell him when to come in. They can tell him when he can take off. They can tell him what he should be doing. That he needs to write more tickets."
The officers also contend that although contract deputies are supposed to spend 20 to 30 percent of their on-duty time outside the contract area, security coordinators get upset when they leave the neighborhood -- even on emergency calls.
"They get hoggish," explains another contract deputy. "They want more and more and more until they get 100 percent of your time. They don't want you leaving. They think that as long as they're in that house there's a moat around that neighborhood. But I shouldn't have to sit inside this contract [area] and when a criminal comes in say, 'Boo!'"
Neither Senator Gallegos nor Representative Bailey holds out much hope that their move to end the contract system will end up on the governor's desk, or, if it does, that George W. Bush will sign off on it.
If the contract deputy program is going to be abolished it's more likely to happen through litigation than legislation. And the three attorney general opinions that have found the system unconstitutional may provide the grounds for the filing of a lawsuit against Commissioners Court. The most recent of those was issued last November by Attorney General Dan Morales, and it was similar to two previous opinions from his predecessor, Jim Mattox.
One thing that Gallegos and Bailey have accomplished, however, is to draw attention to an inequitable arrangement. They seem to have gotten some people's attention.
New County Judge Robert Eckels, who presides over Commissioners Court, has given subtle signs that he realizes the contract deputy program is in need of an overhaul. That's not to say that he thinks the program should be scrapped. But he's acknowledged that there are problems with the existing system of providing basic protection to the residents of Harris County.
"The contract deputy program has never been designed as the primary way of providing police protection for the people of Harris County. It's always been designed to supplement basic services. It has become a way for those areas that want additional protection to provide the higher level of service they want for their community."
It appears that Eckels is at least open to making contract deputies more affordable for less affluent neighborhoods.
"There's no reason we can't come in with different [sliding-scale] contract rates," says Eckels. "But I am in no way advocating changing the program that's out there today. I believe that's a good program.
"I [also] believe we need more officers on the streets. I have no quarrel with those that believe we do because I believe we do as well. And I think we need a better coordinated approach [to law enforcement] between the constables and the sheriff's office.
"The real question is what are we going to do to provide a coordinated attack on crime in our community?"
Reyes Garcia, a longtime resident of Aldine High Meadows North is as devoted to his neighborhood as Bob Marshall is to Meyerland. For three years Garcia went door-to-door trying to get financial commitments from his neighbors to obtain the services of a contract deputy. He finally succeeded last fall after signing up 800 of the 1,500 households in the mostly Hispanic and Anglo subdivision, making Aldine High Meadows North the only neighborhood in Representative Kevin Bailey's district that employs a contract deputy.
Despite the part-time presence of a deputy, on weekends, when it's not raining, Garcia still organizes groups to paint over gang graffiti. He says he's painted a wall of one convenience store 35 times in the last year.
"I knew that if we didn't hire some kind of security," says Garcia, "the good people in our subdivision would move out, and nothing but scum would move in. And then the whole neighborhood would just deteriorate."
But for Garcia, making sure the money is there to protect his property and his family almost has become a full-time job. Like many of his more affluent neighbors, Garcia would just as soon not assume the burden of ensuring his neighborhood has protection. He would prefer to see county government step up and meet its obligations to its constituents. In the meantime, he knows he has to pay or pray.
"Law enforcement is always political," says Garcia. "And it shouldn't be. Because it's lives you're talking about. All the people want is just some protection. If you can't afford it, like Marvin Zindler says, 'It's hell to be poor.'