Terry Jeanes has overseen Garden Oaks’ constable program for more than 20 years and witnessed the impact it’s had on the affluent Northwest Houston neighborhood.
When the community enlists more deputies as part of its patrol contract with the Harris County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office, she said incidents of crime go down. When the number of deputies decreases, like it did three years ago, Jeanes said Garden Oaks sees an uptick in burglaries, car break-ins and other crimes.
“We went from three deputies to two in March 2017,” she said. “There’s definitely been an increase over the years, statistically, since we had the three.”
The county’s longstanding program that allows neighborhoods to pay for an increased law enforcement presence – beyond the standard patrol duties of its eight constable’s offices, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and the Houston Police Department – is utilized and valued in multiple area neighborhoods. The Houston Heights Association (HHA) also contracts with the office of Harris County Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen, as do the Woodland Heights, Shepherd Park Plaza and Candlelight Park communities.
They all have been alarmed by an item on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting of the Harris County Commissioners Court, which could end up altering the arrangement or ending it entirely. Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia has asked the court to discuss and consider action on his proposal for a study of the contract constable program to evaluate its efficacy and how it operates, impacts the county’s overall budget and resources and whether it causes inequities among neighborhoods.
The meeting is scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday on the ninth floor of the Harris County Administration Building at 1001 Preston St.
Among other things, Garcia wrote in his agenda item that such a study should review the education and income levels of the areas under contract, crime rates and response times between areas under contract versus those not under contract, what happens on a countywide level when contracts are terminated 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.”
In 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.
In a Friday letter to constituents that Rosen’s office emailed to The Leader, he said the constable contracts afford other law enforcement agencies the opportunity to focus their resources on other areas. He also disputed the notion that his office does not service the needs of all its constituents.
“Watch this issue closely as it potentially can take away the choices you made to protect your own families through the contract patrol program,” Rosen wrote. “To suggest that our programs may cause inequities in certain communities in simply a misstatement of fact. Every community’s needs are different and our resources are deployed in response to those needs.”
Jeanes said Garden Oaks spends roughly $80,000 per constable per year as part of its 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.
HHA executive director Emily Guyre said Heights homeowners and businesses can subscribe to the neighborhood’s constable program at a cost of $325 per year, with the number of subscriptions correlating to the number of deputies hired as part of the contract. She 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.
Guyre said the arrangement is an “important part of fighting crime in our community.”
“HPD can only do what they can do with the number of people they have on the street, with the funding they’ve got, so they’re hands are tied,” she added. “And if neighbors are willing to bring in a program, I think that we should be allowed to do that.”
In a Thursday news release about the issue, Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle encouraged county residents to voice their opinions to their elected commissioners, constables, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez. Cagle, Hidalgo and Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis are the commissioners court members who represent area residents.
In a Friday statement sent by a spokesperson, Gonzalez said he respects the role of the commissioners court to effectively distribute taxpayer resources and also is committed to working with the county’s constables.
“I support the contract deputy program and would oppose its elimination,” Gonzalez said. “I am also confident the contract deputy program can stand up to the scrutiny of any thoughtful review.”
While Guyre said the Heights community doesn’t want to see its constable contract go away, she also understands Garcia’s desire to study the issue for the purposes of due diligence. She said she’s curious to see what comes out of Tuesday’s commissioners court meeting.
So is Jeanes.
“Really it’s going to boil down to how squeaky the wheel’s going to be and how the constituents push their county commissioner,” she said.