Are contract deputies cheating you?

July 11, 2008 3:57:55 PM PDT
Is the popular Contract Deputy Program in some Houston neighborhoods cheating other taxpayers of their safety? It's the email evidence the sheriff didn't want you to see. For the first time in years, there's debate after 13 Undercover found emails proving the sheriff's extra patrol force is being cannibalized to meet the requests of neighborhoods. That is parts of town which can afford to pay extra.

We went to court to get the emails. Some of them have proven insensitive and even racist. Others suggest the sheriff's office may be playing a shell game with safety.

The Harris County Sheriff's Department is so proud of its popular Contract Deputy Program they even made a promotional video to sell it.

The video states that contract deputies get to know the neighborhoods and who belongs there and who doesn't.

But read this claim in the video:

"Plus these deputies are not being pulled from district patrol."

In fact emails uncovered by 13 Undercover show the sheriff's patrol division is literally being cannibalized almost daily to fill the thirst for lucrative contracts that mostly benefit neighborhoods who can afford it. There are 66 district patrol jobs your taxes paid for now unfilled.

"Are we running short on district deputies yes and we will for a time," said Chief Deputy Danny Billingsley of the Harris County Sheriff's Office.

I asked if this was in part because of the contracts.

"Yes, in part because of contracts," he replied.

You won't hear politicians question this popular program often, but it happened Tuesday.

"I think we should hold off on new contracts until we resolve some of these vacancy issues," said Harris County Commissioner of Precinct 2 Sylvia Garcia.

And the emails show it's the sheriff's own staff raising questions.

When Bear Creek Meadows wanted a new contract deputy, the patrol bureau administrative assistant emailed, "Stop?the deputy would put the district down one more person."

The captain's response, "Eventually we will catch up....I have faith."

The response, "Glad someone does."

A new contract for District 4 prompted this response, "Not amused about this by the way."

"I don't think by filling the contract here and there we are creating any great crisis in manpower," said Chief Deputy Billingsley.

In November Captain Tommy Wilson complained, "We will lose another six district deputies in order to staff new contract positions."

Contract neighborhoods pay 70% of the deputy's salary and he is supposed to spend 70% of his time in their neighborhood.

"The remaining 30% of the time the deputy responds to life threatening or in progress calls outside the subdivision," said the HSCO video.

But even the sheriff's office can't prove taxpayers are getting their money's worth.

"I don't really know how we could do that," said Chief Deputy Billingsley.

And there has been an effort to keep neighborhoods with contracts happy, even at the expense of the rest of taxpayers. After complaints one captain wrote, "I am not saying not to use them, just some of them on and around 1960 need to be used less."

The chief patrol deputy says that's not current policy, but emails show the constant need to schedule contracts and maintain district patrols at the same time is as one captain put it, "Darn confusing and getting worse."

"The program itself has allowed the taxpayers a lot of extra people not only ours, but the constables too, on the streets they have not had to pay for," Chief Deputy Billingsley said.

But are taxpayers due a refund at the end of the year for all these patrol spots your taxes paid for but didn't get? We'll see.

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