(The Center Square) – With crime continuing to rise in Harris County and significant safety concerns at jails, the Harris County Sheriff's Deputies Organization has filed a federal lawsuit against the County Commissioner’s Court.
“Ladies and gentleman of Harris County, if you get robbed, raped or shot, hold your breath and pray because we don't know if we have the personnel to respond," David Cuevas, head of Harris County Sheriff's Deputies Organization, told the local Fox News affiliate
The group represents more than 3,000 Harris County Sheriff's Office deputies and detention officers in the third largest county in the U.S., home to Houston.
Under the “failed leadership of Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo,” who heads the court, Cuevas said at a news conference that sheriff's office personnel and citizens are suffering.
The patrol division is driving “delapidated, refurbished and broken-down vehicles.” Its investigative division is “overworked with no end in sight.” Its dispatchers and civilians “are struggling to keep up.” Its detention officers are overwhelmed and overburdened, Cuevas said, “and not one time has the court come together to think outside the box and take care of the citizens of Harris County and the sheriffs and their employees and the inmates” they are entrusted to take care of.
Cuevas said there have been 6,000 assaults among prisoners and almost 1,000 assaults against county staff by inmates.
There are a dozen safety regulations in place that the county is not complying with that are designed to protect the inmates and county personnel, the group’s attorney, Robin Foster, said. The court has “knowingly underfunded the jails” and its staff are operating under squalid conditions, she said, including not having bathroom breaks or opportunities to eat. There aren’t enough staff to allow personnel to go in pairs to address issues in the jails and as a result, employees are regularly being assaulted by inmates and being sent to the hospital, she added, pointing to numerous examples listed in their 200-page brief.
Cuevas said the group has called on the county for help for years and their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.
"Lina Hidalgo and the Commissioners Court under her direction is worse than any variant that's hit Harris County," Cuevas said, referring to the coronavirus.
The lawsuit was filed against all members of the Harris County Commissioner’s Court, and Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez. Formal complaints were also filed with the Texas Commission on Jail Standards and the U.S. Department of Justice.
"We will be asking the federal government to intervene and force Commissioners Court to do their damn job," Cuevas said.
The Center Square reached out to Hidalgo, all four members of the Commissioner’s Court and Gonzalez for comment.
“The strain placed by the ongoing pandemic on the Harris County criminal justice system, as well as our public health system and other local government functions, has been unyielding and unprecedented," Gonzalez told The Center Square in a statement.
Gonzalez said he was grateful to staff for continuing to work in tough conditions, which he called unsustainable.
“We all understand we must do more to reduce violent crime, address the backlog of cases in our courts, and improve the working conditions of our dedicated public servants," he said.
“But let me be clear to potential lawbreakers. Do not use this pandemic as an excuse to break the law and endanger our residents. If you commit crimes, we will track you down and hold you accountable for your actions.”
Hidalgo and three of the four commissioners didn’t respond to The Center Square's request for comment. Commissioner Tom Ramsey’s director of communications, Amery Reid, told The Center Square that he couldn’t comment on a pending lawsuit.