Last night Commissioner Ramsey hosted a town hall on crime at the Bayland Community Center. Commissioner Ramsey, Constables Heap and Herman, Councilman Pollard, Reverend Willy Davis, and Andy Kahn were speakers at the event, and the district attorney’s office sent a representative. The event was a success and reinforces the belief that crime is a bipartisan issue and that the bond-to-murder judges up in 2022 are vulnerable.
One theme that was present throughout the event is that we cannot let Covid be an excuse for crime. The crime rate was rising before Covid, and Constable Heap noted that initially crimes against property dropped when the Covid changes occurred the property crime rate has rebounded. We also have the sharp increase in crimes against the person highlighted by the worsening bond-to-murder spree in the County.
Law Enforcement Perspective
Both Constables had similar sentiments regarding why we have a crime issue and the difficulties in overcoming the current crime issues in the county. They noted that law enforcement is one aspect of addressing the crime issue, but that it needs to be intertwined with governmental action and religious involvement to have a complete crime fighting package. They also noted some issues specific with the law enforcement aspect of addressing the crime situation.
Difficulty in recruiting and retaining individuals for law enforcement is something both Constables touched upon. Constable Heap indicated increasing difficulty with finding individuals who saw law enforcement as a vocation to help the community. Constable Herman noted the change from the past where criminals now are more prone to run from and/or assault law enforcement and gave an example of losing employees because the employees didn’t want to deal with being assaulted. He suggested that the media’s demonization of law enforcement officers is causing some of this problem.
Both Constables agreed that community policing and building better relationships with the community are necessary to make law enforcement better. Constable Hermann pointed out how the community makes the job easier or more difficult. Constable Heap raised concern regarding the future and who from the next generation was going to be ready, willing, and able to lead departments. They also noted that the use of force policy has been reworked to try and deescalate situations.
Another interesting aspect of the Constables’ presentation was agreement on the need for better technology. The use of technology is one way to offset the current understaffed law enforcement departments, and also is an easy to communicate with individuals. Constable Heap noted that a drone could search a 10 acre field in 15 minutes, while boots on the ground would take 12-15 officers 90 minutes to do the same search. Constable Herman pointed out a new app that was developed to give information.
Concerned Citizens Perspective
Andy Kahn and Reverend Davis spoke from a citizen’s standpoint. Regular readers here have already heard everything Andy Kahn had to say, so I’m not going to repeat most of what he said. However, he did make some good, new, points in talking about how the Wall Street Journal ranked Houston as more dangerous than Chicago, and pointing out that the crime problem is similar to the crime problem in the late 80s and early 90s when prison overcrowding was an issue.
Reverend Davis had some interesting insight to give regarding the current crime situation. He opened his comments noting his long history with Houston and how he’s disgusted with the way local government isn’t responding to curtail crime. He noted that when he ran for office let’s keep Houston safe was one of his campaign themes.
Reverend Davis pointed out how crime negatively impacts the community, and used his four years in Chicago as a comparison and contrast point. He noted that crime follows prosperity. This was a little bit of a confusing statement, so after the event was over I asked him what he meant, and he indicated that the sentiment was criminals go to where the money is located.
He also pointed out that crime leads to segregated communities. Crime goes to prosperity, and prosperity flees the crime leading to self segregation. Although he’s a government official Edward Pollard had a great point along these lines in that crime is the result of a lack of opportunity, guidance, and a lack of respect for others.
Commissioner Ramsey and Councilman Pollard gave a governmental perspective. Commissioner Ramsey organized the event, so spent most of his time with welcoming remarks and introductions. However, as noted at the beginning of the post, he indicated we cannot let Covid be an excuse for crime, and that the current crime spree is unacceptable. He noted the ongoing judicial aspect of the crisis, and also the potential release of more felons and stated we have other options than release.
Councilman Pollard has established his District J Patrol as one method to try and combat crime. He indicated that the lack of law enforcement personnel is a problem to addressing crime since the higher seriousness crimes get the immediate attention of Houston Police Department. This prioritization is understandable, but it is a reactionary approach, and the District J Patrol is an attempt to be proactive and to address issues that HPD does not prioritize because of the manpower shortage. This attempt seems to be well received by all the speakers.
The District Attorney’s office also sent a representative. He indicated that the District Attoreny’s office shares frustration with the current state of crime. He also pointed out that the District Attorney’s office has to have an individual evaluation on every case, and that law enforcement has to refer cases over the District Attorney’s to initiate activity.
What Can Be Done
A town hall listening session is great if it actually leads to action and addresses the problem at hand. Councilman Pollard deserves credit for establishing his district J patrol, and time will tell if the measure helps reduce crime in the district. It is a good example of his desire not to defund the police, but to reallocate funding to better use.
The town hall had good value in exposing areas of opportunity to address crime. With the District Attorney’s office needing a referral to begin criminal proceedings, and HPD not having the manpower to investigate less serious crime a distinct void exists regarding bringing criminals to justice. One way to bypass this is to create a task force between local law enforcement agencies.
If an individual has evidence of a crime that HPD cannot get to then the task force can take the evidence and present it to the District Attorney’s office. The task force also should include some select individuals in the District Attoreny’s office that are assigned to the task force so that they can readily assess the evidence presented and decide whether or not to issue an information or accept the matter for presentation to the grand jury. This could be further refined by soliciting pro bono attorney work to do an initial review of evidence to cull any cases that on the face do not seem like a crime has occurred.
Another area of opportunity is for each City Council district, and/or at large positions replicate the district J patrol. Although not enough time has passed to assess whether the idea will have an impact on overall crime rates at the very least it is a vehicle to address low level crime that HPD will not address. The district patrols can address issues like junk or inoperable vehicles, graffiti, and other open and obvious criminal violations that HPD cannot address.
Addressing economic opportunity is quite the challenge with the Covid impacts still ongoing, but other underlying fundamentals can be addressed either within existing programs or in a self funding manner. A pride in Houston campaign needs to be initiated. An easy way to initiate this concept is to promote the Harris County Sherriff’s Office graffiti removal program. The program already exists, but it’s not well publicized. If Mayor Turner can keep putting out radio spots and social media advertisements for mask up he can do the same for graffiti removal. It’s just a matter of priorities.
In order to address a lack of respect for individuals the various City Councils and the Commissioner’s Court could also make a point to crack down on existing issues that show a blatant disregard for others. Handicap parking violations and passing stopped school busses are two easy opportunities that would have broad public support.
Starting with handicap parking violations, other cities already have programs in place where individuals (or store employees) can take date and timed stamped pictures of violators and send them in for enforcement. We just need to replicate the programs locally. As an added advantage the program would be self funding from the revenue generated so it imposes no burden on the City/County budget.
Passing a stopped school bus is a similar framework. Simply install dash cameras on the school busses that activate when the flashing red lights activate, and shut off when the lights stop blinking. This will lead to safer roads for children entering and exiting the school bus, and the revenue generated from the citations will fund the program. Acting on both handicap parking violations and inappropriate school bus passing sets a tone that we have to respect the most vulnerable in society and imposes a degree of order where law and order is not found.
It is good to see crime being addressed in such a comprehensive manner. Hopefully Commissioner Ramsey has set in motion actions that will lead to a comprehensive crime reduction plan. We know we have to address the bad judges at the ballot box in 2022. However, crime is a bipartisan issue and we need to act now in the areas of common ground to address the problems we can before 2022.