Not so fast: Cops fired, private security hired, crime plummets in Sharpstown?

Did a Texas community chop crime 60 percent by ditching regular police and contracting with private security?

A couple readers asked us to look into this, noting online posts including a March 3, 2015, story on the rare.us website stating Sharpstown, a community in southwest Houston, moved from contracting with a local police department to relying on a private firm to ensure public safety--with remarkable results.

That story quoted James Alexander of SEAL Security Solutions saying: "Since we’ve been in there, an independent crime study that they’ve had done [indicates] we’ve reduced the crime by 61% in just 20 months." Alexander reportedly attributed the success to a larger force of officers and more time spent on patrol. (SEAL stands for Security Guard Services & Officer Training Company.)

A retraction and Texas Monthly

Ahem: rare.us is a conservative-oriented website overseen by Cox Media Group (which also has the Austin American-Statesman, our parent newspaper). At any rate, the site retracted its story while crediting a debunkist Texas Monthly news story posted online March 5, 2015.

The headline hammers the magazine’s conclusion: "No, Sharpstown, Texas, Did Not Fire its Police Force and Bring About a Huge Drop in Crime." The story itself points out Sharpstown is not a city in itself; that no police force was fired to make way for SEAL (though there was a shift); and no news reports confirmed a 61 percent drop in crime.

Our own look

When we inquired, Alexander, SEAL’s director of operations, agreed by phone that any suggestion the company had replaced local law enforcement was a distortion. Still, he said, the area’s Sharpstown Civic Association, which watches over some 7,000-plus residences, stopped contracting with a Harris County constable’s office for supplementary patrols and turned to the company to do so.

This hardly left regular Houston cops hands off.

Alexander said that typically when a subdivision resident calls 911, an officer with the Houston Police Department or the Harris County Sheriff’s Department is dispatched though at the same time the reacting agency might alert SEAL, whose patrolling officer might be close by.

Alexander urged us to ask the civic association’s president about reductions in crime.

By phone, the president, Jim Bigham, told us the association decided in 2012 that its $300,000-plus contract to have county constables patrol its streets was too costly. The deal ensuring residential patrols by SEAL officers has saved the group about $100,000 a year, he said.

And did the association commission a study showing crime plunging 61 percent?

"Pure fiction," Bigham said. By email, he blamed a Feb. 27, 2015 editorial in favor of privatizing police, on guns.com, which quoted Alexander offering the 61 percent figure.

That said, an association analysis (emailed to us by Bigham) states that according to Houston police statistics, burglaries in the subdivision escalated about 16 percent from 2012 to 2013, from 261 to 304, then decreased to 177 in 2014. That is, there were 42 percent fewer burglaries in 2014 than 2013 and 32 percent fewer burglaries in 2014 than 2012, the association says.

Broadly, Bigham emailed, there "is NO SINGLE FACTOR in our success other than perhaps determination," adding:

"Here is the basic model: CITIZENS + HOUSTON POLICE + PRIVATE PATROL (or Off Duty PD)

  • Residents watch and report crime and suspicious vehicles and persons.

  • Private patrol (SEAL) serves as data collection, and quick response in the field.

  • Private patrol (SEAL) provides dedicated VISIBLE patrol to deter (limited value).

  • Sharpstown Civic (SCA) staff collects daily crime info and reports to SEAL & SCA leaders.

  • SEAL Officers have tablets and write file reports and photos at end of shift.

  • Sharpstown Civic Leaders review and work to identify trends and patterns.

  • Houston Police Divisional Tactical Units provide additional (discrete) field work

  • HPD Tactical also shares some intelligence regarding suspects, patterns, issues."

We’re not applying the Truth-O-Meter to this Sharpstown tale. But we hope our research clarifies what happened (and didn’t happen) in this sliver of Houston.