Nobody is shocked by this, right?
For decades, the Harris County Sheriff's Office has justified its controversial contract deputy program by saying it puts more officers on the streets to keep everyone safer, not just those who can afford to pay for extra protection.
But a Houston Chronicle analysis of Sheriff's Office records shows contract deputy positions are filled immediately while dozens of normal patrol jobs remain vacant. In some cases, deputies who were pulled from the traditional patrols to fill contract spots have not been replaced.
Under the department's contract deputy program, civic associations, school districts and municipal utility districts pay the county to have deputies assigned to specific areas or neighborhoods rather than larger patrol districts that may include dozens of subdivisions.
With nearly half of the department's 530 patrol deputies assigned to the predominantly middle- and upper-income communities that can afford to sign contracts, lawmen say they are struggling to provide basic services to the rest of unincorporated Harris County.
One 193-square-mile district in northwest Harris County was so strapped for manpower in June that only five non-contract deputies were on duty on Friday evenings and only four worked Friday overnights. At the same time, 21 deputies were patrolling 18 subdivisions and municipal utility districts in the area. Contract deputies outnumbered regular deputies by a 2-to-1 margin on several shifts in another 216-square-mile district in west Harris County.
Larry Cronin, the president of the homeowners' association for the Thicket at Cypresswood subdivision in northwest Harris County, said he and his neighbors feel much safer knowing one of their three contract deputies always is on patrol. The community used to have a problem with car break-ins, but that went away after the contract was signed around 1995, he said.
"I can have a deputy at my house in two or three minutes," Cronin said. "They're very efficient."
Former Texas Attorney General Jim Mattox issued opinions calling the contract deputy program unconstitutional twice in the 1980s, once before legislators adopted a law authorizing such programs and once after that law took effect. His opinions were upheld in the 1990s by former Attorney General Dan Morales.
But Attorney General Greg Abbott reversed course last year and declared the programs constitutional, as long as county commissioners are sure a contract's main purpose is to benefit the public, not a private group.
County Attorney Mike Stafford said the public benefits from the additional manpower, even if contract deputies spend most of their time in lower crime subdivisions.