Criminal Justice

2 New Harris County Safety Programs Would Limit Police Interactions In Certain Cases

Led by Harris County Public Health, the two programs would create a mental health crisis response team and connect case workers with people at risk of getting involved in violent crimes.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

Harris County officials passed two public safety programs on Tuesday aimed at reducing crime and increasing community safety across the region while decreasing reliance on police intervention.

The Holistic Alternative Responder Team program, or HART, would send public health staff instead of law enforcement to nonviolent calls involving issues like mental health, homelessness, and substance abuse.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the $5 million program would help free up law enforcement resources and help avoid unnecessary police interactions.

“Too often, the root causes of crime are related to health and social challenges like mental illness, like substance use disorders,” Hidalgo said. “We unfairly rely on law enforcement to solve broader societal problems that can be addressed in other ways.”

The second program — dubbed the Gun Violence Interruption Program — would cost the county $6 million, and connect case workers with people at risk of offending. These case workers would provide mental health support, substance abuse treatment, employment support, and support to exit gangs, according to Hidalgo.

The two programs would be managed by Harris County Public Health, and would not be paid for using funds allocated for Harris County law enforcement, which accounts for about 36% of the county’s general budget, according to Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

Ellis added that the HART program would eventually become a fourth pillar in Harris County’s first responder system, which currently consists of EMS, law enforcement, and firefighting.

“These are two proven initiatives,” Ellis said. “We looked around the country to see what worked best to learn from other models and other jurisdictions.”

The proposed programs were passed in a 3 to 2 party line vote at Tuesday's Commissioners Court meeting — with Democrats for and Republicans against.

Similar gun violence prevention programs from across the country have worked successfully. County leaders cited a 30% reduction in shootings in Philadelphia over two years, and a 63% decrease in shootings in the South Bronx, New York.

This comes as the rate of violent crime continues to increase throughout the region. In 2020, homicides increased by about 41% when compared to 2019, with about 400 Houstonians killed by the end of the year.

According to Barbie Robinson, director of Harris County Public Health, Black and Latino men represent nearly 63% of Texas’ homicide victims — despite the fact that they make up less than 25% of the state’s population.

“These local statistics highlight the urgent need to address violence in our communities,” Robinson said. “We cannot rely on law enforcement to do every job and prevent every problem.”

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