Can we still trust Crime Stoppers?

In February, Aguirre’s 9-year-old niece, Arlene Alvarez, was murdered in southeast Houston as she sat in the back seat of her family’s truck, an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire during a ‘an armed robbery. Holding back tears and flanked by a relative holding a picture of Alvarez in her hospital bed, Aguirre offered a moving defense of the longtime nonprofit.

“Crime Stoppers gave our darling Arlene a voice,” Aguirre said. “To this day, no one but Crime Stoppers has given a dime to try to capture the person involved in the murder of my still-at-large niece.”

What happened to Alvarez is the exact type of heartbreaking tragedy that Crime Stoppers is uniquely equipped to handle: providing comfort, guidance, resources and tireless advocacy to a grieving family still yearning for some semblance of closing months after this senseless murder.

Yet recent reporting from the Chronicle’s St. John Barned-Smith, as well as an investigation by The New York Times and the Marshall Project, suggests that Crime Stoppers has, in some ways, strayed from that mission. In recent years, Crime Stoppers has behaved less like a law enforcement partner and more like a partisan organization bent on bringing home a misleading narrative about what, or more specifically, is fueling the surge in violent crimes in the region.

County commissioners put Crime Stoppers under a microscope, thanks in part to a resolution introduced by Republican Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, seeking to honor Fox 26 television for its work with the organization on the recent “Breaking Bond” series. Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a Democrat, decided to delay the resolution, accusing Crime Stoppers of politicizing public safety, particularly bail reform, in ways that strained his credibility, and demanded that the county conduct an audit of the organization’s financial entanglements.

“I fear there has been a shift lately towards a greater focus on politics and often in a partisan way as opposed to the big things this organization was founded for,” Ellis said.

He has a point.

The Chronicle and Times investigations found that since 2018, Democratic judges-elect in Harris County have cut into the organization’s revenue stream by curbing a practice of requiring those sentenced to probation to pay $50 fee to Crime Stoppers. Funding has dropped from a high of around $630,000 in 2017 to a low of $85,000 in 2020.

When Crime Stoppers began running annual deficits, it became increasingly dependent on funding from elected officials, raising significant questions about the organization’s impartiality. In the past five years alone, Crime Stoppers has received over $6 million in state grants backed by Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, $4 million of which has never even been made public and has been issued around the time $5 million in loan payments came due. the organization’s gleaming new downtown headquarters.

The organization also received $500,000 from Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, a moderate Democrat who previously led Crime Stoppers and drew support from Republicans for her vocal criticism of bail reforms she seemed formerly support.

As homicides increased in the region in 2020 and 2021, Crime Stoppers began to focus on cases in which people already on bail were charged with additional violence. Andy Kahan, director of victim services and advocacy for Crime Stoppers, appeared regularly on “Breaking Bond”, highlighting such crimes and accusing judges of leniency. Crime Stoppers says that since 2018, around 170 people have been killed due to poor bail decisions by judges and other failures in the bail system, accounting for around 8% of homicides in the past. of this period.

Certainly, as we have written, some criminal judges have been too lenient. Even though the Texas Constitution initially guarantees bail in almost all cases, some judges and magistrates have set bail low or not revoked bail for repeat offences. But sometimes it seems like Crime Stoppers representatives intentionally confused this issue by decrying “bail reform,” which in Harris County only affected non-violent felony cases. And they don’t seem interested in mentioning other contributing factors to crime: most importantly, a years-long court backlog dating back to Hurricane Harvey.

At the court of commissioners meeting, Ellis questioned why Crime Stoppers, a non-profit organization banned from engaging in explicitly political activities, has recently wielded its considerable influence as “a political club for people with whom they disagree,” besmirching the reputation of an organization that in 2010 helped close 962 cases and paid out $589,000 in rewards.

In response, Kahan compiled a list of Democratic politicians and officials who have supported Crime Stoppers in the past, defiantly contradicting the claim that the organization has taken an explicit right-wing turn. He added, with a straight face, that “community safety is no longer a common goal” among Harris and Houston County officials.

“The purpose of this new political machine is not to guard the concerns of the community but to target anyone in its path,” Kahan said.

For her part, Crime Stoppers executive director Rania Mankarious followed Kahan in accusing the Chronicle and Times reporters of “biased and agenda-driven” reporting.

These comments alone are indicative of the problem. Crime affects us all, but we will not solve the problem with an “us” versus “them” mentality.

For all the important work that Crime Stoppers has done as a national organization since its inception in 1976 – from getting guns out of schools, to protecting victims of domestic violence, to exposing animal cruelty and dumping illegal – no non-profit organization is immune to criticism.

Indeed, it is precisely because of Crime Stoppers’ hard-earned reputation in the community that we should all be concerned if its credibility is compromised by targeting individual judges ahead of an election and intentionally obscuring its sources of funding.

We support Ellis’ call for the county to audit Crime Stoppers’ use of county funding.

Crime Stoppers leadership should err on the side of transparency regarding funding sources. There is nothing wrong with accepting a Governor’s Grant, but it should be disclosed.

April Aguirre’s powerful statement to the Court of Commissioners underscores Houston and Harris County’s need for a strong victims’ advocacy group, especially at a time when violent crime is on the rise. Of course, there are politicians and television pundits and others among us who find it expedient to politicize something as serious as public safety.

A successful and respected nonprofit should never stoop to that level. Crime Stoppers of Houston has been effective for decades because people trust it. That trust – more than any politician’s fat check – is the currency that should matter above all else.

Mark M. Gagnon