August 13, 2022 7:41 am

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Posted: 23.4.2022 23:55

As Expected: The Politicization of Crime Targets Crime Stoppers of Houston. Our Response

On Thursday, April 21, 2022, Crime Stoppers of Houston (CSoH) CEO welcomed Senator John Cornyn (R) and Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D) to the Dave Ward Crime Stoppers of Houston building to address bipartisan efforts that seek to prevent and respond to domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking against women and hear more of these efforts to protect our citizens. But during that meeting, CSoH was bombarded by multiple coordinated stories rooted in partisan noise.

For Over 40 Years
Let’s begin with the basic fact that for over 40 years, CSoH has stayed true to its mission to solve and prevent crime in partnership with citizens, media, and the criminal justice system. During this time, we have studied crime trends and issues, identifying points of concern for the community, listened to the cries of victims, and worked hard to offer solutions. We have never deviated from the mission and have, and continue to build solutions with and for all.

The Politicization of Crime
Sadly, community safety is no longer a common goal. We are in election year and a season where crime and “public safety” are now “political.” The goal of this new political machine is not to heed the concerns of the community, but to target anyone in its way. And it’s safe to say, for some, we have gotten in the “way”.

We saw signs of this last September when a series of papers and organizations started “investigating” CSoH. Individuals including several elected officials strategically began labeling CSoH as “partisan” and sharing negative pieces. We understood all this to be part of a bigger effort to discredit our organization and the voice of victims. We anticipated more would come.

Soon thereafter, we learned The Houston ChronicleThe New York Times, and The Marshall Project (whose avowed goal is to “abolish all prisons” https://www.themarshallproject.org/records/4766-prison-abolition) were all writing stories on CSoH at the same time. We knew where this was going and questioned where this was coming from but still worked for an honest representation.

We openly provided answers, upon answers to all. In addition to all the documentation that is public, we provided unfiltered access to our history, financials, full programming, and programming statistics. Additionally, the CSoH CEO, Deputy Director, Direct of Communications, Bookkeeper, Chairman of the Board, an Executive Committee Board Members, and others took time to answer questions. Sadly, regardless of the information provided – the authors (particularly with the NYT) either ignored or manipulated what was given. Comments from our Chairman and current board members were passed upon for statements from former board members. For those reasons and many others, it became clear early on, that the authors had a predetermined conclusion and would write only what suited that conclusion.

While all of this proved to be a tremendous waste of valuable time for the CSoH team and community – and even now does not deserve our attention, we are providing comments for the sake of the thousands of victims, families, schools, neighborhoods, volunteers, donors and partners we serve.

Funding.

  • CSoH works with all and is funded by individuals, events, corporations, foundations, and government grants. The authors draw particular attention to the fact that CSoH received funds from the State of Texas (intentionally naming Governor Abbott). The truth is any funds that have been received by the State of Texas have been approved by both the House and Senate, made up of Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature. To say these gifts were “partisan” or tied to “partisan agreements” at the direction of one singular person is false and misleading and only gains merit with those unfamiliar with the process.
  • To date, CSoH received $4 million in state funding in 2017 thanks to a recommendation by Senator John Whitmire (D) who recognized how much the organization was doing for the community and observed that we had not gone to the State for funding before.
  • We continue to receive funding to train all CS organizations across Texas in school safety. That funding is for work CSoH provides beyond and in addition to the services relied on by many in Harris County. Said another way: should that additional State funding stop, CSoH’s work in the Harris County area would remain untouched.
  • Additionally, the Harris County District Attorney’s office has been supporting CSoH for decades – naming this current gift as anything partisan – is false.
  • Beyond the Harris County District Attorney’s office, support (i.e. supplemental rewards, program funding, and in-kind gifts) for CSoH has also come from the Mayor, local police departments, Harris County Commissioners, and a long list of other partners.
  • The authors of these latest pieces overlooked all the bipartisan support and work CSoH does and instead chose to cherry-pick and misrepresent two gifts, solely in an effort to create a partisan and false narrative. The so-called ‘gifts’ for the record are from a Democrat and a Republican.  This goes beyond sloppy reporting. It’s dishonest, manipulative, and purpose-driven.
Judges.
  • CSoH has received “probationary fees” since its inception in the 1980s. Those placed on probation in Harris County may be ordered by a judge to pay a $50 fee to CSoH. Those fees, once received, are restricted to the CSoH Tip Rewards Program. That revenue makes up a small percentage of our overall budget. Those funds are not relied upon for organizational growth, staffing or staff recruitment, or additional program development. To claim that we would find ourselves in distress should probationary fees decrease, is false – and we made that clear multiple times.
  • Over a nearly decade, probationary fees to CSoH have trended down as the number of nonprofits a judge could give to has increased. The loss in fees, dating years now and including judges on both sides of the aisle, has not strained our relationship with the judiciary. Naturally, fees declined in 2020 since for most of the year cases were not disposed of due to the pandemic.
  • In 2019 – CSoH made the claim that the revolving door of criminal justice, specifically, the repeated releasing of violent felony defendants – was (and is) leading to an increase in violent crime. In order for CSoH to share this, court cases in which violent felony defendants are repeatedly released into the community – were and are highlighted. As citizens, we are allowed to look at outcomes that contribute to crime and we have been – as our mission would dictate. Through this process, CSoH remains committed to focusing on the cases, the victims and the impact – not the judges. In doing so, we have highlighted over 170 individuals who have been killed because of this revolving door. Despite all the facts provided and the very real crime wave Harris County is suffering, the author’s singular focus was on the political party of the judges. For the record with the exception of one Judge recently appointed, the entire judiciary is Democrat.  It’s shameful and another example of the coordinated effort to fit an agenda.
  • Andy Kahan and Fox26 communicate these violent felony defendant cases through “Breaking Bond”. The authors tried to claim that Andy and Fox26’s Randy Wallace pick cases based on a judge’s giving of probationary fees. This is false as we stated in no uncertain terms. Cases are pulled based on the gravity of the case and victim. Additionally, neither Andy Kahan nor Randy Wallace has access to the probationary fees given to CSoH, nor have they ever requested to see it – all of which we made emphatically clear and all of which were ignored by the authors.
Rising Above the Noise
During a time when a crime is out of control and public safety remains the number one issue for Houstonians and victims – the New York Timesthe Marshall Project and The Houston Chronicle ignored the plight of those suffering to instead coordinate attacks against the organization and its CEO and staff as they tirelessly work for the safety of all.

While we look forward to working with all media now and in the future, our community would very much like The New York Times to worry about crime in New York. Houstonians will take care of crime in Houston. And as we continue working, we are thankful for those currently willing to rise above the noise and work together for the safety of all.


Sharing the support of our full community creates insurmountable holes in the claim that we are partisan.  Here are supportive comments on CSoH from some of our most prominent leaders: 

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D) – who has a long-standing relationship working with CSoH to keep the community safe and who also joins us in our efforts to find wanted suspects. The Congresswoman recently said: “For decades, I’ve served communities in need and have always advocated for the safety of all. Crime Stoppers of Houston has been a long-time partner and ally in these efforts. Together, we listen, show up, and stand up for all. I’m thankful for their 40-plus years of service and look forward to all that is ahead.”

Mayor Sylvester Turner (D) – who continually works with CSoH to support victim families in Houston by finding wanted suspects; Mayor Turner included CSoH in his One Safe Houston Plan.  He recently said “As Mayor, I am committed to the safety of all Houstonians and offer unwavering support for police, fire, and other first responders. Crime Stoppers is our partner in public safety. I commend the organization on its tireless work on behalf of victims, support of law enforcement, and congratulate them for a job well done.”

Senator John Whitmire (D) – inspired us to seek our first State grant and has worked with us on multiple public safety issues. He recently said:
“For over 40 years, I’ve been working to keep the people of Houston and Texas, safe. Having community engagement and partnership in Crime Stoppers of Houston through the nuances of criminal justice and criminal justice reform has been a support to me in my service as well as to all Houstonians who care about public safety. During this unique time, we look forward to doing more together.”

Chief Troy Finner (HPD Chief of Police) – who is one of the leading partners of Crime Stoppers of Houston recently said:
“As a native Houstonian and your Houston Police Chief, I stand proud to support Crime Stoppers of Houston. For over forty years, this group of civilians has worked to bridge gaps between communities and police – doing what it can to curb crime proactively while working with HPD and other law enforcement agencies to stop felony crime in its tracks. Any city is lucky to have active Crime Stoppers. We are uniquely proud to host the largest in the country and look forward to doing more good, together.”

To read more endorsements go: https://crime-stoppers.org/standingforpublicsafety

Quotes in support of our findings that the repeated release of violent felony suspects is causing an increase in crime: 

  • Crime is up ladies and gentlemen and it’s associated with a bail—Kim Ogg DA to the Senate Criminal Jurisprudence Committee: March 18th, 2021
  • The below statements are taken from a report by the District Attorney to Harris County Commissioners Court on September 2, 2021 Ogg: Our findings show re-offending by criminal defendants who have been released on bail is up. Bond failures by bond condition violation reports are up. Violent offenses committed by defendants released on bail is up. Bail reform has not been confined to misdemeanors but has been implemented, in practice for felony defendants at every level, even repeat violent offenders charged with some of Harris County’s most notorious and deadly crimes, including, but not limited to murders and capital murders. Bail reform as practiced in some Harris County District Courts will continue to be a driving factor in the crime crisis gripping our community.
  • Sheriff Ed Gonzalez Interview Fox News January 26th, 2021: “It’s inexcusable cutting lose dangerous repeat offenders on Bond”
  • Mayor Turner Press Conference July 2nd, 2021: “It needs to stop, we should not count on ankle monitors to track violent criminals. Let me also acknowledge that any person who is out for example on 7 felony bonds is unacceptable, And there’s no real justification for anyone to be out on 5,6,7 felony bonds. So let me just say that it needs to come to a stop. We’re all in this together”. Mayor Turner is discussing the murder of 24-year-old Mother Layla Steele and the shooting of her 1-year-old son by a habitual repeat violent offender on 7 felony bonds
  • Senator Joan Huffman: “As a former prosecutor and criminal District Court Judge, it is absolutely appalling to see the release of habitual and violent offenders on small, and sometimes multiple bonds-we have failed our communities, we have failed the victims and it’s time to do something about it”: Fox New July 11th, 2021
  • Constable Sherman Eagleton talking about the murder of 11-year-old Darius Dugas allegedly by a defendant on multiple felony bonds and who had violated his ankle monitor conditions repeatedly: “If the offender would have been in jail where he’s supposed to be, that baby would probably still be here”: Houston Chronicle March 27th, 2022
  • Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s new crime prevention plan unveiled several months ago by two press conferences stated her objective is to prioritize the arrests of repeat violent offenders in the communities. “By increasing policing in those areas, by working to take repeat, violent offenders off the streets in the targeted microzones, we will be able to make a dent in our regions crime rate”: Houston Chronicle December 1st, 2021
  • HPD Chief Troy Finner KPRC January 28th, 2022: “These violent individuals, I’m damn tired of it. We need to stand up as a community and do whatever we got to do. If that is to have more jail capacity. let’s get it done. No more excuses”
  • Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo Houston Chronicle April 14, 2022: “And the truth is, too many people who should be behind bars are out reoffending”
  • HPD Executive Assistant Chief Larry Satterwhite Houston Chronicle July 20th, 2021: “The problem is the criminal court backlog, and it has allowed sadly a lot of people who should not be on the streets to still be out there, people who are preying on the innocent”
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Letter from Justin Vickrey, Chairman, Crime Stoppers of Houston

The current climate that allows for repeat violent felony offenders to be considered victims of the criminal justice system and the people whom they hurt or kill (the true victims in these horrible acts) to be completely disregarded is a travesty that must stop. In the words of our victim services director for Crime Stoppers of Houston (CSoH), Andy Kahan, “Crime victims are the only unwilling participants in the criminal justice system.” Truer words have never been said, Andy.

On Thursday, three articles attacking Crime Stoppers dropped within hours of each other. One from the New York Times and two from the Houston Chronicle. They should have covered their tracks better, as it was nothing short of a coordinated media hit to try and get us to stop talking about crime in our community and the excruciating number of victims left in its wake. The victims and victim families we support and citizens we strive so hard to protect come from all socioeconomic walks of life. These violent offenders don’t care whether their victims vote Democrat or Republican. They are indiscriminate of who they target and anyone can be a victim of crime at any moment. So why is wanting to keep repeat violent felony offenders that pose a threat to our community off our streets seen as a “right-wing” ideology?

I talked to David Farenthold with the NYT for nearly 25 minutes, patiently answering nearly all of his questions. Rania, Nichole, Mimi, Tania, Cabell, and the rest of our CSoH team spent hours upon hours of sending David detailed answers to every single question and follow-up question he had. He didn’t use any of it. Nothing. Why? Because our responses didn’t fit the narrative he had already formed before ever starting to write the article. His co-author, Keri Blakinger, is a writer for the Marshall Project. What do they believe is one of the solutions to our criminal justice system? To abolish prisons (https://www.themarshallproject.org/records/4766-prison-abolition). Sounds totally sane, right? No bias whatsoever.

The politicization of crime is nothing short of sickening. In full disclosure, I have been a member of CSoH’s board of directors since 2016, served on our executive committee since 2017, and have been chairman of the board since January 2021. I remember our board meeting in 2019 when we discussed felony bond reform for the first time and the dangers it posed. We publicly supported misdemeanor bond reform but chose to be vocal and make a public stand against the continued release of repeat violent felony offenders.

Looking back three years later, I am proud of the decision our board made, but incredibly sad how many families have needlessly endured the loss of their loved ones. I believe Andy has tracked 170 people in Harris County who were murdered by people who were out on multiple violent felony bonds since 2019. They should all be with us today if the judges didn’t allow personal reconnaissance (free) or very low bonds to these violent offenders and the bail bondsmen didn’t accept payments as low as 2% or payment plans for their release rather than the standard 10%. This means on a $25,000 bond, some repeat violent felony offenders may pay as little as $500 to get out of jail. Not a very high bar to keep our community safe.

CSoH’s mission is to solve and prevent serious crime in the Greater Houston Area in partnership with citizens, media, and the criminal justice system. While CSoH’s claim to fame is the tip line anchorman Dave Ward professed for decades, our Safe School Institute, Safe Community programs, and research center have added immeasurably valuable help to our community and throughout the state of Texas. We have reached more than 1.2M students throughout Texas with vital information regarding online safety, bullying, dating violence, and a host of other important topics that are age-appropriate.

The defamation contained in these articles is incredibly haphazard. What they neglect to mention about the money they claim we received from Governor Abbott is that it did not come from him directly, but was voted on by both sides of the Texas House and Senate in 2017 and passed unanimously without a single no vote. The money we have received from the state since has been strictly for the use of expanding our Safe School Institute throughout Texas after the Santa Fe school shooting in 2018.

Again, it was not until 2019 that we were made aware of the judges applying the misdemeanor bail reform to repeat violent felony offenders. To believe we only became vocal after we received money from the state two years prior to the problem ever revealing itself is wrong. To believe Andy’s and Fox26’s work on the Breaking Bond series highlighting the most egregious crimes that continue to bring awareness to shortcomings from the judges is done for nefarious purposes is disingenuous. All but one court has been highlighted on the segments and they’re all Democrat judges. Yes, the revenue we receive from the courts is down significantly from where it was several years ago, but what they don’t clearly state is how small of a percentage of our revenue it makes up, how our organization has grown beyond the tip line, or how many other organizations were added to the pool of options each judge can designate for the $50 probationary fee.

In regards to the building, like many non-profits who build their own office, we were blessed in raising half of what was needed in short order so we could start construction and borrowed the other half with a low-interest loan from a local foundation. To claim we started “targeting” the judges due to the reduction in court revenue and the building put us in dire financial straits is absolutely defamatory. We were able to pay the note off thanks to so many of our wonderful supporters and we’re blessed to have a space that serves our diverse community.

Attacking Rania on a personal level (Chronicle) and bashing DA Kim Ogg for being a tough-on-crime “conservative Democrat” District Attorney is reprehensible. I have personally worked with Rania for many years now and am continually impressed by her leadership, dedication, and never-ending work ethic. Day and night, weekday and weekend, she is there. She’s also sought to guide us through this current climate with grace and a commitment to the mission. As for DA Ogg, we are thankful for her years of support and prior leadership of CSoH.  I am proud of our team at Crime Stoppers, the great work that we do, and incredibly thankful for the support we have received for years and continue to receive from most of our local, state, and federally elected officials across both sides of the political aisle.

There is much work to be done and there is far too much to lose if we stop now. Like many of you, Houston is my hometown and it concerns me deeply about what our great city and region will look like for our children in the decades to come. If we do not have a fundamental course correction in how the criminal justice system puts the concerns of repeat violent felony offenders above the protection and safety of victims and our citizens, God helps us all.

– Justin Vickrey, Chairman, Crime Stoppers of Houston