‘Detention deputy’ graduates step into new role at Harris County Jail

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Detention Officer Colleen Peake has long dreamed of working as an investigator.

The 43-year-old joined the Harris County Sheriff’s Office 10 years ago, and began working as a jailer.

She got her peace officer’s license in 2010, but it went unused as she climbed the detention officer ranks on the civilian track within the department.

That changed Wednesday, when she and 62 of her colleagues graduated from a modified sheriff’s office academy, making them fully sworn peace officers working in the jail as “detention deputies.”

“I’m nervous; I’m excited,” said Peake, shortly before giving a graduation speech. “I’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”

The graduation means a cut in pay and a demotion as she goes from a managerial position to the sworn position among the rank-and-file, but it puts her on track to pursue a longtime goal of working as a peace officer.

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said the decision to expand the ranks of detention deputies gives employees like Peake a career path that keeps them in the sheriff’s office, while boosting morale and saving money.

“They’re [state] certified but they weren’t working in a police capacity for us,” Gonzalez said. “If we don’t retain them somehow, they’re just going to go on to the next step in their career and they’re going to go elsewhere.”

The move comes as the sheriff’s office has weathered numerous scandals over inmate treatment and hemorrhaged employees in years past, many of whom said they were burned out by costly mandatory overtime shifts at the jail.

The long hours and lack of clear path for advancement were among the main reasons many employees listed for leaving the department.

“We wanted to create a gateway where we could bring them to a different role now and recognize their past accomplishments,” Gonzalez said.

Employment retention will grow even more critical next year, when the sheriff’s office shoulders the responsibilities of running a new Joint Processing Center that combines intake for both Harris County and Houston police.

Calling Gonzalez’s move “a step in the right direction,” Harris County Deputies’ Organization President David Cuevas said the decision remedied a problem created previously when the department hired detention officers who’d earned peace officers licenses elsewhere but weren’t able to transition into a policing role.

“These detention officers need to have ability to fulfill their dream of becoming certified deputies,” Cuevas said. “It’s not their fault historically our department has not utilized the basic peace officers’ training they’ve earned through outside academies.”

In response to inmate overcrowding and escalating overtime he inherited when he took office Jan. 1, Gonzalez said he ordered a hard look at staffing operations at the jail. After adjusting scheduling, the department saw its monthly overtime expenditures fall from $2 million in January to $1.2 million in May, according to the Harris County Budget Office.

The department also appears to be turning the corner on its retention problems.

“We’re really grateful they started getting some of that in line,” said William Jackson, the county’s budget officer. “They’re solving their own problems within their own budget, internally.”

County budget officials said the addition of detention deputies will help make jail operations more efficient, especially since the newly sworn deputies can transport inmates to the hospital or fill other positions that require a peace officer.

The new graduates completed a modified, shorter academy, refreshing their shooting skills, passing a physical training test, and taking week-long update on writing reports and changes in the law. They will return to work in the sheriff’s criminal justice command.

For Peake, graduation to a job as a certified peace officer means she can pursue her goal of some day working as an investigator.

She’ll have to pass more rigorous physical training requirements, brush up on some more classes, and spend at least two years working patrol.

She’s looking ahead to what comes next.

“I would like to do cold cases,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get there … but I’m intrigued by cold cases.”

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