Increasing police responsiveness, funding, and placing more boots on the ground was the theme of the county commissioner's workshop last week, as local peace officers and the community addressed law enforcement in the county.
A local community group called Taylor’s Organization that assists law enforcement, military, and first responders reached out to Liberty County Constable Pct. 6 Zack Harkness on issues his department faces.
“The Taylor’s Organization had approached me in the beginning with some crime concerns,” said Harkness.
At that point, he helped to facilitate the workshop with commissioners.
Founder and President Allen Taylor spoke on issues primarily in the Plum Grove area that he believes have spilled over into East Montgomery County, where several of his group members reside, and asked commissioners what they could do to assist Liberty County.
“If there is anything we hear that’s going on in the community, we’re going to bring it you,” said Taylor.
Several group members addressed the court with concerns about issues coming to the area and enhanced types of crime. At the same time, asking commissioners what can be done to improve local law enforcement efforts in the county.
"I tell you, what I need is about $20 million," responded County Judge Jay Knight.
The judge explained that the county has been very proactive in supporting local law enforcement, and their support is unwavering, with three commissioned peace officers on the court. Still, funding was sometimes an issue, and they have worked to increase budgets and pay since taking office.
Knight was proud to say the court had, in fact, increased salaries for local law enforcement and made them competitive amongst other agencies, thus retaining more officers.
"Less people are leaving than they were eight years ago," said Knight.
County Commissioner Pct. 2 Greg Arthur, a former county sheriff, made clear the work being performed by the court was to help both the LCSO and local constables, as well as pointing to a new substation in the works in the Plum Grove and Colony Ridge areas.
"We're certainly aware of the law enforcement problem in the county," said Arthur.
Harkness then addressed the court and laid out several facts he had relating to the growing population of Pct. 6, including an estimated 45,000 residents in Colony Ridge alone.
He discussed rising crime rates and other concerns related to response times if an event like the shooting at Uvalde's Robb Elementary occurred.
Those issues he believes will grow more problematic if staffing issues continue like they are, with only four full-time deputies on his staff.
Commissioners believed that the LCSO, Cleveland ISD, Cleveland PD, and Constable Harkness could best resolve that issue currently, working on response plans and even reaching agencies outside of the county.
Knight felt this was particularly important and the agency's duty to address, as the court cannot give directives to any agency.
Harkness told commissioners they had an opportunity to step in and significantly impact law enforcement.
"You guys have the potential to be the best commissioners court in the state of Texas," said Harkness.
Wilson chimed on and commended all of the law enforcement in the county and agreed there were growing issues due in part to the Grand Parkway and other activities in the county.
"I'm proud of every organization in here as far as law enforcement trying to improve their department," said Wilson.
Wilson did, however, point to the budget and available funding at this time.
"We all have champagne ideas, with a beer money budget," he said.
Wilson believes things will only improve as the tax base increases in the county and that he would work as hard as he could to see that law enforcement issues continue to improve.
"I'm proud to say it's going to get better as long as I'm sitting here," Wilson continued, "It's something we're trying to figure out, it's something we're trying to work through.”
One area was related to the constable's budgets, which he said had nearly doubled under the court in the last two years.
The conversation turned to the number of deputies on the streets, and members of Taylor’s asked Harkness how many deputies he needed. The constable stated that he currently needed around 10 deputies to serve the area best.
Commissioners then batted around numbers to just add three new deputies, as well as the cost of vehicles and to outfit them would run approximately half a million. Which court members again responded was not currently in the cards.
Arthur said he believed any funds for additional law enforcement would be better spent at the LCSO, as they are a full-time department.
Taylor then asked commissioners about the possibility of raising taxes, which was met with a resounding vocal rejection by court members.
At that point, Taylor thanked the commissioners and said he would return to the drawing board to work with his organization on areas they could assist Liberty County.
“We’re here to help things,” said Taylor.
Harkness thought the workshop was positive, that commissioners were receptive, and that some solid suggestions were made. Ultimately, he wants to see more boots on the ground in both his department and at the LCSO.
“I just want to be clear the constable’s office has a need,” Harkness continued, “we just need to grow with the increase of the population in Pct. 6.”