Social Distortion

New Harris County Sheriff Axes LGBT Liaison Program

Last month, after finally announcing his candidacy for mayor of Houston, Adrian Garcia stepped down as Harris County Sheriff and county leaders appointed someone strikingly different – an older white Republican lawman who's been itching for job ever since Garcia hinted he might resign to run for mayor.

As with most transitions of power, there was a sweeping, abrupt shakeup within the top ranks when former Precinct 4 Constable Ron Hickman took the reins as sheriff. Just two weeks after his appointment, Hickman had fired numerous people, demoted many others, and replaced his first several commander positions – top brass at the sheriff's office who oversee operations like criminal investigations to the jail – with white men. Garcia told the Houston Chronicle the apparent lack of diversity was “unconscionable,” and Hickman fired back at Garcia while lunching with his base at the Downtown Houston Pachyderm Club's weekly meeting last Thursday.

That Hickman would openly criticize a Democrat whose job he just assumed, or that he'd flood the HCSO administration with his own people, isn't surprising. But apparently Hickman also has a problem with rainbow flags.

David Jennings, a conservative writer who blogs at Big Jolly Politics, attended the downtown Republicans meeting last week and reports that, among other things, Hickman was “incredulous” when someone pointed out the HSCO website featured a small rainbow flag next to an email address to contact someone with the office's LGBT liaison program.

As Jennings writes:
“During the questions from the club time, Tom Zakes asked him (Hickman) about the Harris County Sheriff's office website. Tom told him that on the Contact page for the department, there was a “rainbow” flag and wanted to know if any other 'bacon, lettuce, tomato' groups had special consideration.” 
According to Jennings, a befuddled Hickman responded, “you mean we have a rainbow flag on the website?” and just shook his head.

Needless to say, that rainbow flag is now gone. What's more worrisome to LGBT advocates is that Hickman has also axed the LGBT liaison program entirely.

Here's the explanation Ryan Sullivan, the new HCSO spokesman, gave us this week:
“The LGBT liaison program didn't have the capacity which you would expect by looking at the website. …Those requests were kind of administered ad hoc. Should a request come in, it would be processed around through the department until it could be fulfilled. We already have systems and structures in place through our community services division to take care of those things directly."
That the department's LGBT liaison program was somewhat loosely organized and that requests for an LGBT-friendly officer were handled on an “ad hoc” basis, as Sullivan puts it, is technically true. Lou Weaver, a local LGBT activist and consultant, says *he worked closely with Garcia's office in helping craft policies dealing with everything from discrimination to hate crime allegations to how the sheriff handled gay and transgender inmates in lockup at the county jail.

According to Weaver and others who are familiar with how the LGBT liaison program was set up, Garcia identified officers and employees within the agency who could act as points of contact whenever something LGBT-related came up. Many of those employees went through hours of training in how to better serve the LGBT community, particularly jailers tasked with implementing Garcia's rather groundbreaking policy directive to classify and house inmates based on gender identity and expression rather than biological sex — a policy that Hickman's office says will continue.

Weaver and others were already troubled that Maj. Debra Schmidt, a 29-year veteran of the department who helped implement protections for LGBT inmates and employees at the sheriff's office, was among Garcia's top commanders who were demoted once Hickman took over. Axing the LGBT liaison program in the name of "productivity" is equally worrying, Weaver says.

“It's important that we have a point of contact for people to feel safe going into the jail, contacting the jail if something happens, someone to air our concerns if we feel we're not being treated fairly,” Weaver told the Press. “Unfortunately, it looks like the current sheriff does not take those concerns seriously.”

Garcia made waves last year when he and several deputies marched in the Houston Pride parade; it was the first time HCSO ever made an official appearance. Not surprisingly, Hicmkan's office says he has no such plans for the Pride parade later this month – although, as Hickman's spokesman Sullivan put it, “the sheriff encourages any employees who wish to participate, he encourages them to do so as individuals.”

Sullivan added that Hickman “believes in respect and dignity for all persons,” but that “specific or individual communities getting more attention is an inappropriate use of our authority as law enforcement.”

*Corrected 3:45pm
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Michael Barajas
Contact: Michael Barajas