With violent crime on the rise over the past year, Harris County commissioners unanimously voted to invest $3 million into overtime pay for law enforcement officials March 30 that is meant to help investigators target violent criminals in several key areas. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
The approved funding was based on a proposal from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office that involves investing the money across six units: adult special crimes, violent crimes, domestic violence advocates, child abuse, criminal warrants and patrol crime reduction.
The plan will involve using “crime analysis to identify hotspots and delayed investigations due to staffing shortages and caseloads,” according to the proposal submitted to commissioners. The backlog includes 148 cases within the violent crimes unit, 92 family violence cases, 439 adult sex crimes cases and 651 investigations within the child abuse unit.
“We want to make sure that the sheriff’s office crime reduction units have the resources to prioritize these violent crimes, to go after them, and to show them the door to the county jail,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who authored the motion. “This is an opportunity to provide the sheriff the resources to start bringing justice and a jailhouse to those violent offenders.”
The funding will not be used to create any new positions. Instead it will be used strictly to pay overtime for specialists within the targeted units. Funds will be dispersed in tranches according to a schedule that will be worked out by the sheriff’s office and budget management office.
According to the sheriff’s proposal, aggravated crimes have increased by 21% since the start of the pandemic, while domestic violence incidents are up by 51%. The COVID-19 pandemic created particular challenges for the child abuse and domestic violence units, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said.
“Some of those safety nets have been removed with children not always being in in-person schools, for example, and teachers not being able to be the liaison sometimes to really give us information to help pinpoint whenever they see some of the warning signs of abuse,” Gonzalez said at the March 30 meeting.
The $3 million investment also comes several weeks after officials with the Harris County Justice Administration Department presented data to commissioners showing a 43% year-to-date increase in murders in Harris County and a 33% increase in aggravated assaults. In that same report, officials said similar increases were seen in other major U.S. cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas.
Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle proposed a separate motion that would have provided up to $3 million in additional funding for the county’s eight constable offices that would be allocated depending on needs. That motion was supported by Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey but failed 2-3. The three members of the court who voted in opposition said the $3 million for the sheriff’s office was tailored for a specific need and that no such proposal had been made by the constables for how an additional $3 million for them would be spent.
“I think that it’s getting at hyper-targeted solutions that will be evaluated so we’re not just throwing everything at the wall,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said of the sheriff’s proposal. “It’s not about growing the force; it’s about making sure that the best people have the ability to do their work more extensively.”
A substitute motion form Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis passed 3-2, referring Cagle’s proposal to the budget management office for recommendations. Ellis’ motion also called for the budget office to follow up on an initiative passed last June related to a potential $25 million investment into programs that could be used as alternatives to criminal justice interventions.
Gonzalez said the sheriff’s office would collaborate with constables to get feedback on what they are seeing in their coverage areas. However, he said the sheriff’s office has specialized units set up to investigate child abuse and domestic violence where investigators are already working on a daily basis.
“At the end of the day, it’s about making sure we put the best teams together to accomplish the mission,” Gonzalez said. “We want to make sure we don’t lose sight of a very tight mission here and that we get results that really work for the Harris County community.”