Commissioners unanimously agreed at the June 9, 2020, meeting to set aside $25 million for criminal justice intervention programs related to poverty, mental health and substance use. The new programs approved Aug. 10 will require about $11 million from those allocated funds.
Harris County will invest $5 million to create a Holistic Alternative Responder Team to work with community organizations to respond to nonviolent calls pertaining to issues such as mental health, substance use, homelessness and social welfare.
“To reduce crime, we have to break that cycle of crime, incarceration, recidivism and get at the root causes of crime; and as we all know, too often, the root causes of crime are related to health and social challenges, like mental illness, like substance use disorders,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said during an Aug. 9 press conference.
At this time, 911 dispatchers have three response options when a county resident calls—the fire department, emergency medical services and law enforcement. If the caller’s concern does not fit into one of these categories, dispatchers generally send law enforcement officers.
Representatives from the Houston Police Department and Harris County Sheriff’s Office who spoke during the meeting said not only does this add to their workload, but they cannot always help in such situations. By the end of the year, the HART will be a fourth response option in limited geographic areas with plans to expand in the future.
“We want and need police officers to be there keeping our community safe,” Hidalgo said. “We also need folks who are specially trained to deal with nonviolent issues on our streets so they can address them before it leads to crime and so our law enforcement can focus on what’s related to crime.”
Barbie Robinson, executive director of Harris County Public Health, said the county’s ZIP codes with the highest rates of gun violence also experience high rates of generational poverty, lacking insurance, food insecurity, underemployment and economic insecurity.
A new division of Harris County Public Health that will house the HART program along with a Gun Violence Interruption Program focused in these at-risk areas could launch by the end of the year, officials said.
The Gun Violence Interruption Program, which will cost about $6 million to implement, will focus on addressing the root causes of violence and preventing it before it occurs through community-based street outreach, officials said. It will operate in one or two high-need communities and in one hospital in its first year, connecting at-risk individuals to mental health, social, educational, economic and employment services.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis proposed these programs because “everybody deserves to be safe,” he said during the Aug. 10 meeting.
These two programs will help address the region’s increase in violent crime, Robinson said. Similar initiatives have been implemented in other major U.S. cities and have been proven to reduce violent crime, she said.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey and Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle voted against the proposal but agreed to continue working alongside the appropriate county departments on crime reduction efforts.
While Cagle was generally supportive of the goals of these programs, he said he was “not in favor of creating more bureaucracy” and that he would rather see the county better support and fund local organizations doing similar work.
“Chicago is worse than us. That is not a place that we need to be modeling after,” he said. “Washington, D.C.; [Los Angeles]; Baltimore—these are not places that I think that we should be trying to follow their model. I agree wholeheartedly that we need to do ... what works best for us and not necessarily import other people’s problems to where we are.”