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 program, civic associations, school districts and municipal utility districts pay the county to have deputies assigned to specific areas. The groups pay the county $56,000 a year per officer, and that deputy is supposed to devote 70 percent of his or her time to patrolling the contract area. With nearly half of the department’s 530 patrol deputies assigned to the predominantly middle- and upper-income communities that can afford contracts, lawmen say they are struggling to provide basic services to the rest of unincorporated Harris County. The disparity has raised new questions about the fairness of giving some residents what amounts to “preferred customer” status while their taxpaying but less-wealthy peers get less protection.