When Sheriff Ron Hickman took office last May, he did a few things right away that pissed some people off.
After former sheriff Adrian Garcia stepped down to run for mayor, Hickman kicked off his new appointment by replacing eight command posts with white guys (two of whom he plucked from retirement) and appointing zero females (after demoting one and firing another). Then he cut the office's LGBT liaison program, which included a point person in the jail for inmates and community members to notify with their concerns. He even took down the little rainbow flag on the Harris County Sheriff's Office website after learning about it at a Republican meeting last June.
In March, Hickman will face Carl Pittman and Paul Day — both sheriff's deputies — in the GOP primary, which he's favored to win. Then he's likely to face off with favored Democratic primary candidate Ed Gonzalez, a former city council member who also has 18 years of law enforcement experience.
As campaign season kicks off, the Houston Chronicle's months-long, six-part investigative series into conditions at the Harris County Jail is bound to be a big part of the discussion. The Chron found examples of everything from excessive use of force to jailers altering paperwork to cover incidents up from 2009 to 2015. Hickman responded to the investigation by saying that the Chron misrepresented current conditions, and that much of what was documented by the Chron was the fault of the previous sheriff.
Which, to some people, was exactly the wrong response.
"To me this is not a matter of who's responsible for something that's happened before," said Michele Deitch, a professor at the University of Texas's School of Public Affairs who studies jail standards across the state. "It's about how do you run a safe, humane and effective corrections facility, and what does it take to do that going forward? That's the commitment I would expect to see."
Below is a recap of changes he's made since taking office that have reflected that commitment — the good, the downright bad and the toss-ups.
Improving Jailer Training Requirements
Anyone who's ever taken an online driving class to get rid of a traffic ticket knows that completing it is as easy as clicking buttons.
Who knows if that was the case for jailers-in-training after Hickman's predecessor decided to shut down the jailers' academy as a cost-cutting measure, then replace it with an online course. But at least for jailers going forward, Hickman has since reopened the academy and now requires six weeks of in-person training; he also raised the minimum jailer age from 18 to 21. In the past, he's pointed to poor training under Garcia as one possible reason the jail was catching flak for guards mistreating inmates. But whether that's fair criticism is a different question: Mistreatment of inmates is something that had persisted long before Garcia took over in 2009, when an extensive Department of Justice investigation found that life-threatening jail conditions violated inmates' rights.
Overhauling The Booking Process
At a public meeting on Wednesday, a sheriff's deputy unveiled the results of a months-long overhaul of the previously convoluted booking process. After Hickman took office, he ordered a few deputies to rethink how it works, given that inmates were having to be escorted to multiple buildings and were even being accidentally left behind or lost. While the average wait time for an inmate to finish the booking obstacle course was 24.4 hours, the changes have brought it down to 8.16. Hickman said it was among the changes he was proudest of. "We need more time on the street for officers — not more time booking prisoners," he said.
Cutting jail inspectors
Never minding the array of horror stories from the Chron's investigation, Hickman saw fit to cut his jail compliance inspection team — watchdogs for employee misconduct at the jail — from 15 inspectors to eight. He also removed the specific internal affairs team that did long-term, proactive investigations into employee misconduct in order to make them available to help with other caseloads. (Spokesman Ryan Sullivan told us that “in the absence of 'proactive' caseloads to investigate, such a dedicated squad would sit idle.”) Here was Sen. Rodney Ellis's reaction to those decisions last month: “Any proposal that reduces oversight capability is not connected to reality.”
Hickman told us last week that he has since decided to add back two inspectors who will have K-9s and search for smuggled narcotics, whether on guards or inmates. He also, again, decried the Chron's investigation as unfair, telling the Press that the conditions the investigation unveiled apparently don't exist in the jail anymore. But to Deitch, even if that were true, loosening the reins on jail oversight is never a good idea.
“It's really concerning, because you need to have a preventative strategy so that problems can be responded to quickly,” she said. “[Jail inspectors and internal affairs] are both incredibly important components of an effective accountability structure within the jail agency, and cutting that is a recipe for ensuring more problems and more issues that result in lawsuits or injuries to staff or inmates.”
She added that she could not think of any reason why any internal investigator would be sitting idle and twiddling thumbs.
Cuts to LGBTI programs
In 2013, when Adrian Garcia implemented a new policy designed to protect LGBTI inmates from discrimination or harassment, it was applauded across the country. He hired Lou Weaver, a transgender rights advocate in Houston, to teach a mandatory jailer training course on how best to implement that new policy. And he had the rainbow flag on the HCSO website, next to the designated LGBTI liaison's email address. Once Hickman took office, though, Weaver was fired, and the LGBTI liaison — who was Maj. Deborah Schmidt, a 29-year veteran Hickman immediately demoted after taking office — disappeared too, along with the flag. The LGBTI community was no friend of Hickman's after that.
When we asked Hickman about this last year, he said LGBTI training is still available to deputies online should they seek it out, and that they still are required to take a Prison Rape Elimination Act training course, which covers how to handle more vulnerable groups (Weaver told us last year that he did not think this was nearly enough). To justify the decisions, Hickman said, “I don't promote, and I don't discriminate. I won't be for or against anybody. So if I put a rainbow on my website, who do I turn down?”
Hickman's New Budget
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For the first time, the sheriff will not be allowed to simply shift around money willy-nilly to different departments as he pleases at any point throughout the year.
That's really how it used to be: If the sheriff had underestimated how much money he would need to spend on psychotropic drugs, he could just transfer some money over from patrol — making it relatively easy to create budgeting problems. Now, though, Harris County Commissioners Court has divided Hickman's budget into three silos: patrol and administration, medical, and detention. Any time Hickman wants to transfer money or needs more, he must run it by the commissioners.
And there are some promising changes to Hickman's budget, which is a $27 million increase from Garcia's last year — a big chunk of which Hickman had no control over, said Harris County Budget Director Bill Jackson. But with roughly $8 million more for “service enhancements,” Hickman, Sullivan and Jackson all said that enhancing mental health treatment with those extra funds is top priority.
It's a matter of waiting and seeing what this will mean, but already, Sullivan said, they have increased the number of mental health beds from 200 to 400, have consolidated all mentally ill and severely physically ill people on one floor, and have stopped locking down mentally ill people for up to 23 hours a day — now allowing them to freely roam the floor and socialize, with more clinical supervision instead of more guards.