It’s not quite dusk in Wortham Villages, a sleepy subdivision in northwest Houston, and the Wortham Villages Community Association is almost ready for National Night Out. Folding chairs and tables have colonized a parking lot near the community pool, games of cornhole have been set out, someone is prepping a grill, and Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman is standing under a shady row of oaks, talking to residents in this quiet neighborhood about what he believes to be one of the most pressing issues facing his office today: mental health care.
“We run the largest mental health facility in the state,” the 63-year-old Hickman says to the crowd of mostly older women. “We spend $22 million per year of your money taking care of these inmates.” A discussion ensues about the ongoing mental health care crisis in the US, where roughly half of the 7.9 million Americans with severe mental illness go untreated, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
A woman with a friendly miniature poodle in tow pipes up. “Deputy Goforth would have been alive if not for that,” she says.
A round of silent nods greets her pronouncement. It’s been a little over two months since Harris County sheriff’s deputy Darren Goforth was shot and killed in his uniform at a gas station in Cypress, and it’s still a tough topic for Hickman to discuss. He’s a compact man with the gruff outward demeanor of that classic cop metaphor, a bulldog, but he jokes and smiles easily—that is, when he’s not discussing what he later tells us was “one of the most cold-blooded things I’ve seen in my entire career.”
The unprovoked shooting—15 rounds emptied into Goforth at point-blank range on the night of Aug. 28—occurred while the deputy was fueling up his police cruiser. The alleged assailant, a man named Shannon Miles with a lifelong history of mental illness, remains locked up in the county jail some deputies now refer to as the Hickman Hilton, awaiting trial.
The murder thrust Hickman into the national spotlight barely three months after he took over the third-largest sheriff’s department in the country. The first encounter many Houstonians had with him, in fact, was a sound bite captured at a press conference following Goforth’s death: “We’ve heard black lives matter, all lives matter,” Hickman said. “Well, cops’ lives matter, too, so why don’t we just drop the qualifiers and just say lives matter and take that to the bank.” The comment made national headlines and drew ire from a public angered by his attempt to draw a connection between the Black Lives Matter movement and Goforth’s death.
It wasn’t a great first impression, Hickman readily admits. So tonight, with a full slate of stops ahead for National Night Out—an annual event that encourages neighbors to meet in the streets along with the police who patrol them—he’s trying to connect with Houstonians who may know nothing else about him or his department than what they’ve seen replayed on TV.
Hickman joined the Houston Police Department in 1971 and the Precinct 4 Constable’s office in 1983. In 2000, he ran for precinct constable and won, serving four terms before Adrian Garcia, the former Harris County sheriff, stepped down to run for mayor last May. It was then that the Harris County Commissioners Court appointed Hickman as sheriff, a position he’ll hold through the end of next year, as November elections will determine who holds the office for another four years after that.
From his old role to his new one, the number of employees Hickman oversees has increased more than tenfold, from 425 to 4,600, and the budget he manages by a similar factor, from $42 million to $437 million. He’s also gone from a relatively obscure position to a very public one, but he sees bright sides to being the newcomer.
“I don’t have the institutional and traditional knowledge of why you do things,” Hickman tells us later, driving in a large black SUV to the next National Night Out block party. “I have a fresh set of eyes, and I can challenge the status quo.”
In the 12 months remaining on his appointment, Hickman has set some big goals, such as modernizing the Sheriff’s Office, which still relies heavily on pen and paper rather than computer systems, and minimizing violence in the Harris County Jail, which his office manages, by instituting new education and age requirements for detention officers and updating monitoring systems.
There’s also the small matter of keeping the peace. “The real challenge is providing adequate service to the people that are not in jail,” Hickman says. “We’re dealing with 1 million calls for service annually, and we have 715 patrol officers answering. The area of landmass is in the thousands of square miles. You’re basically spending most of your day running from one service call to the next, looking for immediate solutions.”
Other challenges, some unforeseeable, await. In the days after National Night Out, a bombshell revelation will make headlines: a sheriff’s detective involved in the investigation into Goforth’s death had sex with one of the witnesses, the same woman Goforth had been with at the gas station and with whom the married deputy was allegedly having an affair. Although the investigator will be immediately relieved of duty, the pending legal action against him will prevent Hickman from discussing the matter beyond a short statement that reads, in part, “This investigator’s conduct was unethical and inexcusable and does not reflect the core values of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.” The revelation will surely leave many in Harris County wondering how a seemingly open-and-shut case could go so wrong.
But on National Night Out, at our next stop, Hickman greets a group that’s dedicating a pocket park in Deputy Goforth’s honor, in the Mandolin Gardens subdivision. He strolls past tents holding face painters and James Coney Island hot dogs, shaking hands with residents and handing out stretchy blue bracelets imprinted with the words Pray 4 Police to the kids who race up to him.
To Hickman, the one silver lining that’s come out of Deputy Goforth’s death is what he calls a “resurgence of general and public support,” whether in the form of the large temporary memorial of flowers, balloons and hand-written signs that decorated the Chevron station where Goforth was killed or a small park bearing his name underneath an American flag. Today, that’s enough. Tomorrow won’t be easy.