Officials said departments must collaborate and—in some cases—expand to keep up with residential growth and upticks in different types of crime. While residential burglary has decreased 40 percent in the past five years, business robbery has nearly doubled, according to Precinct 4 statistics.
The Precinct 4 constable’s office has added deputies, new equipment and vehicles this year, and it plans to break ground on an eighth substation on Holzwarth Road near I-45 this fall, Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said.
“We will never stop all crime, but we are doing a good job of controlling it and displacing it,” Herman said.
The department also faced the challenge this summer of maintaining services after losing access to its Cypresswood Drive headquarters when the building flooded during Hurricane Harvey. Its plans for a new station on Holzwarth Road and department growth have not changed, but the offices have relocated temporarily.
In addition to changes at the county level, the Houston Police Department is changing how it patrols several areas around I-45 and Hwy. 249, creating a new beat—the North Belt division—to redefine an area previously split up among four separate beats, increasing police efficiency.
Commercial crime rises
The Precinct 4 constable’s office, Harris County District 1 sheriff’s office and Houston Police Department share responsibility in patrolling areas between Hwy. 249 and I-45.
The sheriff’s office is the default responder for emergency calls in the county, but calls are diverted to the Precinct 4 constable’s office in areas that have contracted with that agency, District 1 Capt. Jay Coons said.
An increase in commercial burglaries has caused concern among some business owners. Business robbery in Precinct 4 has nearly doubled from 60 to 110 incidents annually since 2012, according to department statistics.
Giulia Salmaso, owner of Delicitaly Italian food store on Stuebner Airline Road, said she stopped taking walk-in customers after a clerk in her store was robbed at knifepoint in May. Although no one was harmed during the incident, the store now focuses on online and appointment-based sales.
Changes in traffic patterns often precede an increase of crime in an area, like the new patterns created by the opening of sections of the Grand Parkway in Spring and Klein last year, Herman said.
“The area is ramping up because of how people get in and out of it,” Herman said.
Coons said gangs are also becoming increasingly complex, using counter-intelligence and counter-surveillance to foil police.
“I can tell you that the gang issue is increasing and getting more sophisticated and diverse,” Coons said. “This is a for-profit business.”
Fewer burglaries have been reported in residential areas in the past five years, where municipal utility districts can enter a patrol contract to pay for 70 percent of an officer’s salary—or about $70,000, including benefits and vehicle costs. The officer spends 70 percent of his or her time in that area, said Kevin Coyne, president of Harris County MUD 19.
MUD 19, which includes parts of Augusta Pines, will have a contract with the Precinct 4 constable’s office this fall, Coyne said.
“[It will] be a visible deterrent to any future criminal activity,” Coyne said.
The number of crime reports has risen alongside 18 percent population growth in Precinct 4 between 2010 and 2016.
To address that growth, the Precinct 4 constable’s office annual budget has increased from $42.3 million to $53 million since Herman took over in 2015. Those funds have been invested in manpower, equipment and facilities to improve service and response times, Herman said. His office has added more than 40 new deputies this year, and has invested about $2 million in purchases, including 199 new ballistic vests,
194 patrol cars and 40 AR-15 rifles.
“It’s a sign of the times,” Herman said of the rifle purchases. “I feel that my job is to protect constituents. The bad guys have them, and I have to keep my people where they need to be with safety equipment.”
The department will purchase more rifles after it finishes training officers on the first round of purchases, he said.
“The nature of criminality has changed,” Coons said. “Armed robberies involve bad guys and gals using high-quality weapons.”
Both county law enforcement departments faced an unexpected challenge in late August when Hurricane Harvey left 3 feet of water in the Cypresswood Drive courthouse annex that houses their offices.
The county will meet with a consultant this fall to determine the future use of the building, and whether it will continue to house county offices or those facilities will be moved, Harris County Engineer John Blount said. In the meantime, the agencies operate out of other stations or temporary locations.
The departments experienced no interruption in service as a result of the flooding, Herman said. In fact, law enforcers picked up three looters during the storm within a minute of receiving each call.
“We did the best we could with the variables we had,” Herman said. “I think overall we’ve come out very well.”
City, county restructure
Law enforcement also examines response times and beats when analyzing how to employ its resources.
Although most of the Spring and Klein area is patrolled by the Harris County sheriff and constable’s departments, the Willowbrook area and several areas along I-45 fall under the jurisdiction of the Houston Police Department.
Until recently, HPD officers responding to incidents in that region—which includes Willowbrook at Hwy. 249 and FM 1960, Greenspoint and property surrounding but not part of the George Bush Intercontinental Airport—reported from beats that encompassed a much larger geographic area.
Those areas will be reorganized as the North Belt division this year to conserve resources and simplify command, HPD Capt. Daryn Edwards said. A central office for the division will be built in the Greenspoint area at I-45 and Beltway 8, but a timeline for construction has not been decided, Edwards said.
“We wanted to [change] for better efficiency, effectiveness and being able to tailor services better to that area,” Edwards said.
HPD will maintain its presence in Willowbrook Mall and may expand its hours, Edwards said.
The sheriff’s office will also examine how it can optimize its resources under the governance of Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who took over the position this year. District 1 employs only 180 deputies to cover an area of 400,000 residents, Coons said.
“It’s a little premature to go into specifics,” Coons said. “I think for the first time really in the last 40 years, we could be looking at some major organizational changes.”
Coons said the department also will likely work more closely with the constable’s offices in the county. The two departments will continue to inhabit the Cypresswood Drive annex building if it is restored, he said.
“The closer we work together, the more efficient the use of taxpayers dollars,” Coons said.
While many residential subdivisions contract with law enforcement for increased patrols, apartment managers are also attuned to the threat that crime poses to their residents, said Eda Brooks-Hallgren, property manager for Park Trails Apartment Homes.
Located near Ella Boulevard and I-45, the apartments were fraught with gang activity more than a decade ago, but Brooks-Hallgren said managers have addressed the problem by collaborating with local law enforcement and applying a residential curfew.
Community involvement extends to local chambers of commerce. The Spring Klein Chamber of Commerce began its Coffee With a Cop program in January, inviting the public to talk to officers at a McDonald’s restaurant on FM 2920 once a month.
Larry Lipton, who recently took over as head of the Houston Northwest Chamber of Commerce’s safety and security task force, said the chamber recently allocated $15,000 from its budget to purchase mobile fingerprinting devices for the area’s law enforcement agencies to help police identify individuals who do not carry identification.
Lipton said he believes the decrease in residential crime shows the effectiveness of policing in those areas, but challenges remain.
“No one stays in their residential area 24/7, so if we don’t solve the commercial problem also, we haven’t solved anything,” Lipton said.