Texas Sheriff May Use Volunteers to Help Clear Warrant Backlog

Nov. 21, 2011
As some Harris County commissioners urge action, the Sheriff's Office is considering using volunteers to help clear a backlog of nearly 30,000 felony and misdemeanor warrants.

Nov. 21--As some Harris County commissioners urge action, the Sheriff's Office is considering using volunteers to help clear a backlog of nearly 30,000 felony and misdemeanor warrants.

These warrants need to be entered into a database that allows law enforcement agencies to know whether a person is wanted for a crime in Texas or the U.S. While no concrete decisions have been made, using volunteers is one of several options, but those people must be cleared first before they can handle such sensitive information, Sheriff Adrian Garcia said in a statement.

"We are always looking at ways to eliminate the backlog in the data entry of arrest warrants for lower degree felonies and misdemeanors," Garcia stated.

Last week, the Houston Chronicle reported that the Sheriff's Office, which enters warrants into the database for all law enforcement agencies in the county, faces a backlog of 10,088 felony warrants and 19,748 Class A and Class B misdemeanor warrants.

This potentially leaves police officers throughout the county, state and nation in the dark about thousands of people wanted for crimes, creating a potential threat to police and the public.

Garcia acknowledged that the backlog does a pose a serious public safety issue. He attributes the backlog to a lack of staff and funding, and believes that clearing the backlog would require additional personnel.

However, some county officials say the issue may be better addressed if Garcia better allocated funds and resources in his organization.

Request denied

Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said he was surprised to learn of the backlog.

"I find it embarrassing that they would have themselves in this situation," he said. "There are people out there that could be arrested and that could be preventing future crimes."

Radack believes that the warrant backlog does not require very technical or complicated solutions and the sheriff could reallocate staff within his organization to solve the problem.

"There is a way to catch up with this," he said. "There are resources available to him (Garcia) and he should use them."

The sheriff's proposed budget this year asked Commissioner's Court to pay for hiring 45 clerks, some of whom would have been assigned to perform warrant entry, sheriff's officials said. None of those were approved.

County Judge Ed Emmett, who presides over Commissioner's Court, said he believes the Sheriff's Office is under-funded like many other county agencies. But he maintains that it is the sheriff's responsibility to prioritize issues of importance in his organization and make the best use of the budget allocated to him.

Emmett said he does not believe that Commissioner's Court should tell elected officials like the sheriff how to use their budgets. However, he noted that Garcia has a large administrative staff and is also spending $30,000 a month for consultants to help address the overcrowding issues in the jail.

"Those are examples of where he has chosen to spend his money and he has to answer, 'Is that better use of money than dealing with these warrants?' because he's only got so much money," Emmett said. He added that spending in these ways makes it harder for Garcia to make the case that he needs more money.

The sheriff defended using a consulting team, stating that they help reduce costs.

"I pay for those services with funds that do not come from taxpayers and which cannot under the law be used for continuing employee payroll obligations," Garcia said.

3 clerks on the job

Currently, the Harris County Sheriff's Office, which receives about 3,000 warrants a month, has three clerks to enter warrants into The Texas Crime Information Center, TCIC, a statewide database operated by the state Department of Public Safety.

Sheriff's officials estimated they would need an additional six to 12 staff members to clear the warrant backlog.

In his statement, Garcia said providing adequate staff remains a budget issue.

"Re-allocating personnel and/or re-allocating budget dollars might be a solution if there were personnel to re-allocate or budget dollars to move," he said.

Garcia said keeping those in Harris County safe is of utmost importance.

"I am working with the judge and the county commissioners in good faith to provide the services that keep the law-abiding people of Harris County safe," Garcia said.

"My goal and actions have been to work as a partner in this difficult economy while striving to protect the citizens from harm."

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Copyright 2011 - Houston Chronicle

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