Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia originally proposed the item, but he withdrew it in hopes of continuing a conversation about how to analyze the effectiveness of the program that lets neighborhoods pay for additional coverage from the constable’s office.
“There was a point that was made that [constable’s office] employees are worried about their paychecks; they’re worried about their mortgages and things of that nature; I regret that this item and the way that it was communicated has caused that kind of concern,” Garcia said in asking to table the item. “I think the program is serving its purpose, but I am certain that there are ways that it can work better.”
Garcia, who formerly served as Harris County sheriff, was refuted by current Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez during public comment.
“It's part of the community policing DNA in our Harris County law-enforcement community. ... In no way should the contract program ever go away,” Gonzalez said. "It’s a force multiplier for their agencies and for ours as well. We already work collaboratively when it comes to the program. If anything, it could be expanded.”
Several Harris County constables spoke during the meeting, citing positive relationships between their offices and the communities they serve.
One of the aims of Garcia’s study was to evaluate the equity of the constable system and whether constables free up resources for low-income neighborhoods that cannot afford constable deputy contracts or whether they create duplicative services in high-income areas without a broader benefit to the county at large.
Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen said his office tried to run a pilot program for a contract deputy to serve in the Houston’s Kashmere Garden’s neighborhood, but the program was discontinued. He said he tries to ensure his office’s resources are deployed equitably.
“We have county-funded slots that go extensively into those neighborhoods that can’t afford it. I make sure of that because of who I am,” Rosen said.
Former Houston police union President Ray Hunt said working with contract deputies in Houston helps relieve the efforts of Houston police officers.
“They’re a tremendous help to us. ... If we don’t have these constables doing these neighborhoods, we’re going to be out of control with crime,” Hunt said.
Over 100 speakers from civic associations, homeowners associations and neighborhood groups signed up to speak on behalf of the constable program and its benefits to specific communities. Chaka Long, a resident of Houston’s Northside, was one of several speakers who spoke to the effectiveness of community-based law enforcement.
“Growing up in the Northside, my first positive interaction with a police officer was with a constable,” Long said. “I’m able to tell my kid that he can trust the police because of our relationship with our neighborhood constable."
Garcia stressed several times that his intention was not to rid the county of its contract program but to better understand how it affects law enforcement efficiency. Part of his proposal was to study ways to combine evidence rooms and data collection between the constable's office and the sheriff’s office. Gonzalez said he was open to looking at these types of efforts but not consolidating any law-enforcement agencies.
A 2018 study from the Kinder Institute of Urban Research looked at the constable program along with other law-enforcement entities across the county, including the Houston Police Department, small city police departments, school districts and other entities. As of 2018, the county had 189 constable contracts and 109 sheriff's deputy contracts, according to the study. Among its recommendations for cost savings were combining the constable and sheriff's deputy programs and requiring neighborhoods to pay the full salary of their contracted deputy.
Currently neighborhoods pay 70% to 100% of a deputy constable’s contract. Those that pay less than 100% do so with the understanding that the constable may spend the remaining percentage of his or her time patrolling or responding to calls outside the neighborhood. Garcia said he wanted to use the study to determine if constables' time was spent in their assigned neighborhood and the county at large in accordance with the contracts' stipulations.
Kyle Shelton, a researcher on the Kinder study, offered to speak with county officials about its findings, which included strong community support for the program but also opportunities to improve efficiency through the consolidation of certain elements of area law-enforcement entities and practices.
“We think our study is a useful starting point, and it’s not a conversation that is limited to the county and the sheriffs and constables. It lays out a set of challenges that are shared among area law-enforcement agencies," he said.