Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Call in the troopers. That's one of state Sen. John Whitmire's plans for reducing crime in Houston, which voters consistently have rated as one of their top concerns.

A similar partnership with the Texas Department of Public Safety cratered in spectacular fashion in Austin – and that was before news broke about agency brass ordering troopers to push children into the Rio Grande.

Whitmire, who formally filed to run for mayor Friday, said he is sticking by his plan to bring in 200 state troopers to help patrol the streets of Houston.

Calling the situation at the border “a total, sad fiasco,” Whitmire said he could craft an agreement with the state to keep troopers under local oversight. Whitmire said that as the ranks of the Houston Police Department continue to thin, DPS’s help is needed to tamp down on crime.

“I’m not Gov. Abbott, I’m not the mayor of Austin. I have been in the Legislature long enough to know how the political scene works in Austin. I can handle the responsibility of telling the governor we’re going to do it the Houston way,” Whitmire said.

In broad strokes, Whitmire is calling for the state to send about 200 troopers to Houston to backstop the Houston Police Department, which has lost more than 300 cops from a quarter-century ago. The Houston Chronicle last month documented how the department’s 911 response times steadily have crept up over the past few years.

Troopers already do some patrols in the Houston area, but they spend most of their time on the highways and at special events, according to the Houston Police Officers’ Union.

The agency’s expanded local duties could include traffic patrols and warrant sweeps, Whitmire said. He said he would take the lead from his police chief on the specific arrangement.

Violent crime in Houston has been on a steady decline. Whitmire noted, however, that it remains elevated compared to before the pandemic.

“Law enforcement is short in Houston,” Whitmire said. “People are coming up to me in large numbers saying, ‘you’ve got to do something.’”

Not everyone is convinced that police in general and state troopers in particular are the best solution, however.

In Austin, Mayor Kirk Watson initially invited the state to send additional troopers to patrol the city. He suspended the city’s partnership with the state after an incident in which troopers pulled guns on a father in front of his 10-year-old son during a traffic stop. Gov. Greg Abbott, who noted that the agency’s jurisdiction extends statewide, responded by promising to send more troopers to Austin.

Soon after that incident drew headlines, the Chronicle reported a trooper’s email stating that agency brass had ordered officers participating in Abbott’s Operation Lone Star to push children crossing the border into the Rio Grande.

Whitmire said he had not seen the video of the incident in Austin. He added that he long has been opposed to sending troopers to the border – and said neither place was the right comparison for his Houston plan.

Rather, he pointed to Dallas, where the mayor welcomed troopers to that city in 2019 after a spate of shootings. In seven weeks, troopers pulled over 12,500 people. Police said violent crime dropped by 29 percent.

“After having been advised by Dallas’ current mayor how well it worked in Dallas to deal with the criminal hot spots, I think it is a temporary solution to our understaffing. If we would do a serious recruiting and add to the Houston Police Department’s numbers, we probably wouldn’t need the DPS, except for special events,” he said.

In Dallas and Austin, some community leaders said they thought the DPS sweeps were targeted against Black and Latino residents. Hispanics make up 33 percent of Austin’s population but they made up 65 percent of the agency’s misdemeanor arrests, according to data released by the Travis County district attorney.

One Houston community activist said he always has supported alternatives to policing, but called the DPS proposal especially troubling. Jaison Oliver, an organizer with the BLMHTX/ImagiNoir Collective, an organization aimed at improving Black lives locally, said he worries how the troopers would interact with Houston’s large immigrant community.

“I have particular concerns about DPS because of the state’s leadership, and because of what we’ve been seeing, especially in terms of at the border,” Oliver said. “Certain communities are seen as expendable when it comes to experiencing police violence, and we don’t have strong systems of accountability.”

One alternative for city leaders worried about 911 response times could be to bolster the civilian units that respond to mental health crisis calls, he said.

“There are alternatives that we have that we are not implementing,” Oliver said. “We know that, for example, the calls flagged as mental health calls, we are nowhere near addressing the scale and scope that is needed in terms of crisis intervention and response.”

Third Ward Super Neighborhood President Ken Rodgers called the DPS proposal a “really bad idea.”

“I hope Whitmire will be more creative and offer solutions that address the core problems related to crime. This solution sounds like an occupying force by a group with a poor history with our community,” he said.

Whitmire is not alone in calling for more cops, however. In Westbury, residents are tired of seeing drivers blow past speed limits on Hillcroft Avenue, said Becky Edmondson, the area’s super neighborhood president.

“You just don't see police cars on the streets like you used to,” Edmondson said. “Speeding is an issue, running red lights is an issue. So, having more patrol cars just visible on the streets will make a difference.”

The Houston Police Officers’ Union also supports the idea, said Douglas Griffith, its president.

“We would welcome any help we can get. DPS troopers would be a big asset for us for accidents, traffic control, speeding,” Griffith said. “When you're talking about bodies, we can use whatever we can get.”

Griffith said he did not know about the incident in Austin, but he praised the agency in general.

“There’s always going to be incidents that people are going to disagree with, be it right or wrong,” he said. “I know for the most part, they're an extremely professional organization. Those guys do a great job every day.”

Despite the recent incidents that have put the DPS in an unflattering light, Whitmire still may have a winning political issue, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

Across partisan, racial and geographic lines, Houston voters tell pollsters that crime is a major issue. In a recent UH Hobby School of Public Affairs survey, 98 percent of respondents said it should rank high for the city’s next mayor.

“This plays to his strength as a tough-on-crime Democrat, and leans on his decades of legislative experience on criminal justice matters. It basically hits the sweet spot for him at a time when this is a No. 1 issue,” Rottinghaus said.

The risk that Whitmire could turn off liberal Democrats may be limited, Rottinghaus said.

“I’m not sure he would keep many of them in his camp anyway, so I'm not sure that the downside is as bad as the upside is good for him,” he said.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print.

Matt Sledge is the City Hall reporter for the Abdelraoufsinno. Before that, he worked in the same role for the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate and as a national reporter for HuffPost. He’s excited...