Pastor Keion Henderson and Sheriff Ron Hickman welcomed the community to a town hall meeting. Photo by Jacqueline Havelka

 

“Thank you for this opportunity for community and law enforcement to gather together in one place to ask questions and seek answers and to leave this place more unified. We pray for our city, as our world is in upheaval with misunderstandings that plague our nation. Our hope is that we leave here more unified.” These were the opening words from Pastor Keion Henderson at the Harris County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) town hall meeting held at Humble's Lighthouse Church on Sept. 21. Town hall meetings have been held in various locations throughout Harris County by Sheriff Ron Hickman to enhance the safety and trust of citizens by sharing the latest news. 

Hickman graduated from the Houston Police Department Training Academy in June of 1971 and has had a distinguished 44-year career. He has been named Constable of the Year on three separate occasions and is a 2014 graduate of the prestigious FBI National Academy. He was unanimously appointed sheriff of Harris County by the Commissioners Court in May 2015.

Hickman began by discussing the new DWI unit that was rolled out Labor Day weekend. Harris County has the most DWIs and related fatalities of any county in the nation, and this dedicated task force was designed to crack down on the problem. Regular officers who encounter a DWI violation can call the task force to deal with it, thus returning officers to their regular duties.

Hickman then discussed the new Real Time Crime Center which opened March 2016. The center provides field officers with investigative and critical information that assists with enhanced situational awareness during active crime events, such as hostage situations, and also helps to identify criminal patterns and thus stop emerging crime.

In August, K-9 units were expanded to go inside jails to detect narcotics and other contraband such as cell phones. Since the batteries of cell phones give off a unique scent, dogs have been trained to detect them.

Hickman then discussed the $5 million overhaul of video-monitoring capabilities within the jail. More than 1,600 cameras as well as network and supporting infrastructure are being installed in Harris County jails. As Hickman put it, “Both inmates and officers will act differently when they know the cameras are rolling.”

Hickman also explained that the four outlying jails are being reopened to alleviate the problem of all inmates being transported to the downtown jail. The sheriff's office annex jail on Will Clayton Parkway is one of these, and the transport time saved will allow officers more time in the north Houston community.

Hickman was particularly pleased to share information about the Basic Peace Officer Course (BPOC) academy training. The last BPOC training academy was in 2009, and Hickman reinstated the course so that Harris County could provide very specific training to its own deputies. It is a military, boot camp-style approach with physical fitness and firearms training as well as all levels of force training. The first BPOC class under Hickman graduated in 2015. Hickman said that the program is very selective and that the applications are highly scrutinized.

 “We want the best protecting you,” said Hickman. Hickman also announced that a shooting simulator will be acquired in the near future to better train officers. 

“In these simulations, the first time you 'shoot' someone, it has a dramatic impact on you. This technology allows us to see real life scenarios without real life impacts,” he said.

HCSO also began the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) in November 2015. It began with a private donation of $130,000 to bolster the inadequate resources to deal with Houston’s homeless population. Hickman reminded everyone that “it is not illegal to be homeless,” and said that HCSO used other successful programs such as the one in San Antonio as benchmarks. The HOT team has helped 1,059 homeless people since last November, and with an estimated 5,500 homeless people in total, that means that HOT has directly impacted one-fifth of them in less than one year. He gave an example of a family of five found living under a bridge; the youngest child was 8 months old. The father had lost his job and they found themselves homeless with no possessions. HOT helped the family obtain housing and part-time jobs to begin to pay their bills.

The sheriff then turned his attention to the huge task of providing medical care for inmates. There is a hospital inside the downtown jail; it employs 1,000 people and expends $62 million for medical and mental healthcare and is 100 percent paid for by taxpayers. The large sum of money is needed because by law, the health of an inmate must be maintained while incarcerated, including any treatments such as chemotherapy and medication they are taking. As Hickman explained, many inmates come to the jail with very poor health to begin with. Each inmate has an eight-hour comprehensive exam upon entering the jail, and often, the hospital diagnoses many problems the inmate didn’t know they had. The hospital then must also maintain and treat any newly diagnosed conditions. Mental health in prisons is a big issue, and Baylor College of Medicine is opening a psychiatric-care teaching hospital within the jail to provide this much-needed care and to give its medical students first-hand experiences at mental healthcare management. The sheriff also mentioned that clinicians usually accompany officers on mental health calls to de-escalate the situation and prevent non-criminal mental health cases from ending up in jail.

Hickman announced the arrests of nearly 30 sex offenders since the High Tech Crime Unit was started in June of 2015. The unit works with other federal, state and local agencies to combat online child sexual exploitation. Hickman gave an example of a person bringing a two-year-old to have sex with who he thought was a 14-year-old, but who turned out to be an officer in a sting operation. 

Prior to the town hall meeting, officers had handed out information on offenderwatch.com, where residents can search for sex offenders in their neighborhoods and also obtain child safety information. The HTCU also addresses the ever-increasing aspect of technology-facilitated crimes, such as computer security breaches and online impersonation.

There were several questions from attendees. One person asked whether Harris County had cultural sensitivity training, in light of the recent Tulsa and North Carolina shootings. Hickman explained that cultural diversity training is a long-standing part of officer training, and discussed the great diversity of Harris County. For example, it has one of the nation’s largest Muslim populations and a large Asian population comprised of Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese and Korean people. HCSO recruits and hires officers from within these communities, and in an effort to better reach the Asian community, as one example, Hickman’s office began running programs on Saigon radio and television regarding the benefits of HCSO and ways to avoid becoming a crime victim since many Asian businesses are run on a cash-only basis. The department reflects the diversity of the city, with 1,600 female officers, 1,770 African-American officers, 1,009 Hispanic officers, and 133 Asian officers.

Another man asked about what was being done to facilitate better relationships between troubled teens and police. Hickman referred to the Teens and Police Service Academy, designed to break down barriers between at-risk youth and officers in their communities through interaction, discussion and awareness about how each group is perceived by the other. Officers learn more about the challenges faced by today’s youth, and teens learn about the role of policing in society and how to talk and interact with police. Hickman also informed the crowd about the Explorers program, which provides law enforcement career orientation experiences to interested youth. During the meeting, the Explorer students did car safety checks, unbeknownst to the audience, and Hickman announced that 19 of the 96 cars checked did not pass. (This reporter's car was an epic fail, by the way―with visible packages and doors unlocked.)

A veteran in the audience suggested the creation of liaisons between the community and police. Hickman said that this suggestion had been voiced at every town hall meeting and that his office was doing more to facilitate this. Currently, citizens can request the area supervising officer to speak to their group.

A woman pointed out that officers and community members were seated separately rather than being intermingled, and suggested that at future meetings, officers intersperse to get to know citizens. Three officers proceeded to walk over and hug the woman.

Another woman asked why body cameras were not yet in use at HCSO. Hickman explained that his office is in the process of acquiring the technology; it is a large purchase with a tremendous amount of infrastructure, networks, computers and software to support the 2,000 cameras being purchased.

Finally, one man asked if use of civilian volunteers could be implemented to offset costs. Hickman noted that while HCSO is limited as to the types of activities civilians can participate in (due to protection of privacy laws and sensitive records), that civilians do indeed play a crucial role in supporting the sheriff. The Citizens Police Academy (CPA) just celebrated its 21st anniversary; it is a 13-week class designed to provide citizens with an informed view of the sheriff’s responsibilities. CPA graduates help with various activities such as “Coffee With a Cop” and “Dining with a Deputy” programs, provide blankets and supplies for the homeless, and even provided manpower at the stations so that officers could attend the funeral of Deputy Darren Goforth one year ago. 

Becky and David Moon have been in the CPA program for 17 years. A man at their church suggested the program and they are enthusiastic about it. The class covers human trafficking, burglary, homicide and cold cases. “It is the most rewarding thing we have every done; we love our family in blue,” said Becky Moon. Stacy Lawhorn is another CPA volunteer in District 3. A coworker suggested the class to her two years ago, and she has “a different respect for what a hard job these men and women do. Serving the people is in their hearts; they are not against you,” said Lawhorn.

Prior to the meeting, an open house was held with information booths, including one for Houston's The 100 Club. Depute Rene Dennis was there; she had lost her husband in the line of duty years ago when her children were ages five and nine. 

“The 100 Club was at my house the day he was killed; they provided emotional support and had $10,000 for me that day to cover funeral expenses,” said Dennis. She explained that her family has continued to receive crucial support from the club. Her children are now in college, and the 100 Club has helped her shop for cars and even provided a laptop computer for her daughter for college. The organization started in Harris County and now serves 31 neighboring counties; the club has been replicated across the nation. One hundred percent of donations to the Survivors Club go to the families of fallen officers.

Another information booth provided handouts on the Motorist Assistance Program, a sheriff’s initiative to help stranded motorists and keep roads safer. Citizens needing assistance can call 713.CALL.MAP.

The office’s resources were on full display and open for public tours. Many excited kids (and adults alike) toured the LifeFlight and patrol helicopters, boats, SWAT vehicle, bomb squad unit and robotic equipment, which is used not only in Harris County, but also used to support 12 surrounding counties who do not have the equipment.

HCSO employs 5,000 people and has an annual operating budget of $500 million; on any given day, the jails hold between 9,000-10,000 inmates. 

“Strong partnerships and coalitions within our community are crucial, and they’re how we are successful going forward,” Hickman concluded.

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