At a Jan. 28 commissioners court meeting, Gonzalez asked for about $19.9 million in additional funding, money that would primarily be used to fund 260 new deputy positions and 21 new investigators, among other needs.
“We have operational needs that need to be met with a growing county,” he said at the Jan. 28 meeting. “Domestic violence reduction is a priority as are other proactive crime reduction services. We have to make sure our training [and] our personnel are keeping up.”
However, the final budget approved by the court Feb. 11 included no funds for additional personnel, said Jason Spencer, director of public affairs for the sheriff’s office. An increase of $11.4 million for patrol and administration was enough to cover medical benefits and a 2% pay increase for all employees. The budget also included $4.6 million in discretionary funds, which Spencer said is being used to fund an additional 1% raise for all sworn law enforcement personnel, bringing the total raise to 3%.
At the Jan. 28 meeting, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo suggested the sheriff hold off on hiring new deputies until after the completion of an ongoing study into the county’s overall criminal justice system.
In the meantime, officials with the sheriff’s office said they will continue to work with what they have, including collaborative efforts with local constable officers.
The population in the Cy-Fair area has increased from roughly 510,000 to 580,000 between 2013 and 2018, according to five-year estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. As of 2019, the populations of the two sheriff districts that cover the broader northwest Harris County area—District 4, from Hwy. 249 to Hwy. 290, and District 5, from Hwy. 290 to I-10 West—were around 462,000 and 406,000, respectively.
From 2014-19, the total number of patrol deputies working in the sheriff’s office dropped from 681 to 619, according to department data. When that figure is separated into district deputies, who serve the sheriff’s office full time, and contract deputies, who serve specific communities on a contract fee basis, the drop-off becomes even steeper: The department gained 85 contract deputies between 2014 and 2019 while losing 142 district deputies over that time.
Contract deputies can spend between 70%-100% of their time within the areas they are contracted to patrol. Spencer said the recent shift toward contract deputies and away from district deputies is a reflection of an increase in the number of communities who have chosen to participate in that program over time. The office’s request for 260 deputies was meant to increase patrols in noncontract areas, he said.
“The bottom line is our funding for patrol deputies has not kept pace with the significant population growth we’ve seen in unincorporated Harris County,” he said.
Analyzing patrol needs
As of September 2019, District 4 had 65 district deputies and 108 contract deputies, while District 5 had 48 district deputies and 83 contract deputies, according to HCSO data.
The sheriff’s office budget requests were based on a staffing analysis conducted between September 2018 and August 2019, researchers said. The analysis found that Harris County lags behind other law enforcement agencies in terms of law enforcement employees per 1,000 residents. With roughly 1.14 deputies per 1,000 residents, Harris County employed only about half the rate of the national average of 2.4 law enforcement employees per 1,000 residents and the state average of 2.2 deputies per 1,000 residents.
With the recent request for more deputies unfulfilled, collaboration with other law enforcement agencies will be increasingly important in places such as Cy-Fair, officials said. The Cy-Fair area is patrolled by the Harris County Precinct 4 Constable’s Office east of Hwy. 290 and the Precinct 5 Constable’s Office west of Hwy. 290.
As of press time March 10, county commissioners were expected to discuss a study into the implementation of a combined dispatching system between constables and the sheriff’s office at a March 10 meeting.
However, Gonzalez said the more the sheriff’s office is able to function on its own, the better, especially when it comes to growing needs for traffic enforcement.
“We’re working collaboratively with the constables and others, but we need to make sure we’re growing on our own on that,” he said.