Every year, when it’s time to pay his $325 to support an extra police presence in the Heights, Gordon Hagendorf said he pauses to consider whether it’s worth it.
So far, at least, the answer is yes.
That’s what Hagendorf said Tuesday at Harris County Commissioners Court, which had an item on its meeting agenda that alarmed law enforcement officers and citizens all over the Houston area. Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia asked the court to discuss and consider a study of the county’s longstanding contract constable program in which neighborhoods such as the Heights and Garden Oaks pay for additional patrols beyond the standard duties of the Houston Police Department, Harris County Sheriff’s Office and the county’s eight constable’s offices.
In his agenda item, which Garcia ended up removing amidst backlash, he wrote that such a study should review the efficacy of the program, whether it creates inequities in low-income areas, how it impacts the sheriff’s office and the “total cost of the contracts for the public and any potential savings that may be realized by eliminating the ability of Constables to enter into the contracts.”
“Let the customers decide how effective the program is,” Hagendorf told the court. “They’re not going to waste their own money, and neither do I.”
Hagendorf was among scores of community members who filled the court’s downtown meeting room and vocalized their support for the contract constable program. Each of Harris County’s eight constables and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez also voiced their opposition to a study that might alter or eliminate the program, which provides protection to neighborhoods and a revenue stream for the constables, and so did Houston City Council member Mike Knox.
After Knox, Gonzalez and the constables spoke their piece – and before any community members took the podium – Garcia said he was pulling his item and no longer seeking action by the court. Garcia, formerly the Harris County Sheriff, and the rest of the court later voted unanimously on the following motion by Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle:
“We move that we affirm the contract constable program and will not seek to study to eliminate or terminate the constable or sheriff contract program.”
Houston Heights Association executive director Emily Guyre said the program is an “important part of fighting crime in our community.” Businesses and residents such as Hagendorf can subscribe to the program for $325 per year, with the number of subscriptions correlating to the number of deputies hired as part of the contract with the office of Harris County Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen. Guyre said the HHA currently pays for four deputies who work in shifts and occasionally double up during times when there tends to be more crime.
Terry Jeanes of the Garden Oaks Civic Club said its organization spends roughly $80,000 per constable per year as part of its two-constable contract, with roughly 350 residents contributing to the voluntary program. She also said the neighborhood covers 80 percent of the cost of the entire contract, with the county covering 20 percent.
The Woodland Heights, Shepherd Park Plaza and Candlelight Park also have contracts with Rosen’s office, with the latter two neighborhoods teaming up on their arrangement.
In a 2018 study called “Collaborations and Overlapping Services in Harris County Law Enforcement,” Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research found that Harris County spends at least $1.6 billion annually on law enforcement and “could save considerable administrative expenses” by consolidating the patrol services of the sheriff’s office and constable offices. The study also found that the county could save as much as $22 million per year by requiring communities to cover the full cost of contracted deputies instead of the majority of that cost, and that the current set-up raises questions about the equitable distribution of law enforcement services.
Rosen challenged the notion that his office neglects neighborhoods that do not pay for extra patrols.
“We have county-funded slots that also go extensively … to those neighborhoods that can’t afford it,” Rosen said. “I make sure of that because of who I am.”
As opposed to putting a strain on county resources, Knox said the contract constable program provides relief to other law enforcement agencies in the region. He said the arrangement enables HPD and the sheriff’s office to devote more resources to areas that are not covered by contracts.
Knox also agreed with Hagendorf that citizens should have the right to pay for more police presence if that’s what they want.
“It’s important that we represent the least and the last among us, that we take care of those who can’t take care of themselves,” Knox said. “But we weren’t elected just to represent them. We were elected to represent all of the taxpayers of Harris County, including those taxpayers who pay their taxes, who make an income and feel like they’re not getting the response they need from the jurisdiction assigned to them and have chosen to spend their money to hire extra security for their neighborhood – and, by the way, add benefit to the rest of the community.”