CLEVELAND — On a Sunday evening before Labor Day, Liberty County Sheriff’s Cpl. Robert Whitesel maneuvered his patrol car through the sprawling development known as Colony Ridge, humming along to a Guns N’ Roses power ballad.
Most shifts, Whitesel will respond to the occasional burglary, theft or report of drug activity in the development that is home to tens of thousands of Latinos — many of them in the country unlawfully — about 40 miles northeast of Houston.
On this night, Whitesel handled two calls, one for someone shooting a gun in their backyard and the other to support another deputy with an unruly person. He also issued two traffic tickets and delivered a warning for a broken tail light.
“For the most part, everyone here is good people,” Whitesel said.
The comment stands in stark contrast to the portrayal of Colony Ridge that far-right websites and many of Texas’ top Republican elected officials have put forth in recent weeks, describing the area as riddled with crime, a magnet for illegal immigration and a potential hotbed for Mexican drug cartels.
Local law enforcement officials, however, offer a more nuanced view of crime and public safety in the massive, decade-old development.
In interviews, Liberty County’s Republican sheriff, Bobby Rader, and his team said the agency needs more deputies, but the county’s relatively small tax base constrains its budget. They also said violent crime occurs in Colony Ridge and cartels operate there, but those are no more prevalent than other parts of Houston and Texas.
“There are good people that live in Colony Ridge. We have deputies who reside there,” Liberty County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Billy Knox said. “There is crime there, but you have it everywhere else. At the end of the day, our main concern is having enough people in there to be proactive and provide services to the citizens of the county.”
The local accounts are backed up, in part, by crime data reported to the state by all Texas law enforcement agencies.
The figures show the violent crime rate in areas patrolled by the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office was lower last year than in jurisdictions overseen by the Houston Police Department and sheriffs of Harris, Galveston and Chambers counties. The sheriffs of Montgomery, Fort Bend, Brazoria and Waller counties reported lower violent crime rates than Liberty County’s sheriff.
The data also show the number of violent crimes — murder, rape, robbery and assault — reported by the Liberty County Sheriff’s Office each year has remained consistent over the past decade, even as the population has boomed during that time. The agency typically investigates no more than four murders per year, though it reported 11 murders in 2020, and 10 in 2022.
“We asked about crime statistics,” state Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Baytown, said after a tour of the development Thursday. “So far, it sounds like it’s either comparable to other locations or less than, especially less than some of the urban centers.”
Law enforcement agencies do not report data on drug-related crimes to the state. Knox also said the crime figures are almost certainly an undercount because some residents — including many residing in the country illegally — fear law enforcement.
The local accounts and crime data have done little to quell the right-wing uproar over Colony Ridge.
In turn, Gov. Greg Abbott last week told radio and TV host Dana Loesch that “serious concerns have been raised” about Colony Ridge, and that he was gathering information about the development for state lawmakers to address in their upcoming special session. Abbott has not detailed how Texas lawmakers might act against Colony Ridge during a legislative session.
Last month, Abbott’s Department of Public Safety deployed four officers working 12-hour shifts to help with traffic enforcement in Liberty County, allowing sheriff’s deputies to focus on responding to service calls, Knox said.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton also has said his office is looking into the development, while Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick recently toured Colony Ridge, saying afterward it needs more law enforcement.
“We need to send more troopers, and the county judge and commissioners court need to budget for more deputies using some of the money they are receiving from the property tax collections from this new development, and the developer needs to hire more contract deputies,” Patrick wrote on his website last week.
Rader acknowledged the sheriff’s office is stretched thin. At any given time, there are no more than three deputies patrolling Colony Ridge, an area stretching 60 square miles, Knox said.
Colony Ridge property owners associations pay the salaries of 10 patrol deputies.
“As a department, we can’t keep up,” Rader said earlier this year.
On the immigration front, Knox said the sheriff’s office only checks someone’s status if they have been arrested and booked into the county jail on a violent felony charge. If a detainee is found to be in the country illegally, jail staff call the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, to verify whether the federal agency wants to take the suspect into custody for possible deportation.
The Liberty County Sheriff’s Office does not participate in ICE’s 287(g) program, which allows local law enforcement agencies to perform federal immigration enforcement activities, such as issuing holds on detainees until ICE takes them into custody.
While Rader said Colony Ridge needs more policing, resident Karelly Lopez-Almanza said she regularly sees law enforcement officers in the area, most often conducting traffic stops. Lopez-Almanza said she and her husband occasionally hear far-off gunfire, a somewhat common occurrence in rural areas of Texas, but generally feel safe in their southwestern subdivision of Colony Ridge.
“Police are always around,” she said. “Before there weren’t any. Since there’s more people now, they’ve been getting more involved.”
On Wednesday afternoon, two law enforcement vehicles sat in the middle of a county road, ready to travel in either direction. That’s a normal sight, LaJita Bakery manager Kathia Trejo said.
“There’s a lot of cops around here,” she added. “I believe they are always around, because every time I get out of here, they are always standing in the (street) corner.”
Staff writers Céilí Doyle, Angelica Perez, Danya Pérez and Paul Cobler contributed to this report.