How many times are we going to find ourselves in this same situation before we finally accept that we need to do something different?
The Harris County Sheriff’s Office has cut funding for law enforcement operations to cover exploding overtime costs at the department’s understaffed jail, a move critics say could harm public safety while failing to address departmentwide staffing issues.
Since March, the department has transferred nearly $8 million to jail operations from other areas in the department largely to cover overtime pay for jailers, which has risen 500 percent in the last two years, county records show.
Sheriff Ron Hickman acknowledges the fiscal strain but said state laws have tied his hands.
“When we steal money from some place in the budget like patrol, we can’t buy cars anymore, or new tires, we have to put that money to pay for the inmates,” he said at a recent town hall meeting in Clear Lake. “I have to (care for inmates). I’m statutorily required. Getting to your house the same day a burglary happens is not a legal requirement. So guess who suffers when we don’t have the funds? Y’all do.”
Monthly overtime costs have risen from $261,472 in mid-March 2014 to nearly $1.4 million by mid-June this year, records show. Overtime costs in May 2015, when Hickman was appointed sheriff, were $328,357.
The budget transfers come as county commissioners have rejected requests from Hickman to bulk up staffing with 376 new positions and after he changed employment policies to prohibit the hiring of jailers younger than 21 in hopes of developing a more mature workforce.
In an interview with the Chronicle, Hickman blamed the spike in overtime to an increased jail population, state requirements on staffing, aging facilities and trouble retaining jailers who can earn better pay with fewer hours elsewhere.
The Harris County Deputies’ Organization has grown so concerned about staffing and retention issues that the organization has begun filing records requests seeking the department’s manpower plan.
“We’re at a critical shortage when we have a high population of prisoners and we’re forcing people to work overtime and people are fatigued,” [David Cuevas, president of the Harris County Deputies’ Organization,] said.
Emphasis mine. You know what could solve these problems without shifting money around or taking deputies off of patrol or any of those other things mentioned in the story? Having fewer people in jail. In Sheriff Hickman’s defense, there’s not much he can do policy-wise to affect the jail population. He does, however, have the capability, and frankly the obligation, to call on the District Attorney and the criminal court judges to use the power they have to alleviate this problem, which after all is almost entirely of their making. I’d have more sympathy for him if he did that. We know what the problem is, and we know what the solutions are. We just refuse to do them.