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It's Rough Riding for Crooks in This Texas County

Williamson County gets some ribbing over its tough stance toward scofflaws - but it has the lowest crime rate in the state.

Like the quiet lawman in a Western dime novel, sheriff's deputy Kevin Hallmark is not the type to brag. Yet he and the other law-enforcement officers who patrol this stretch of central Texas do have one thing to be proud of - the lowest crime rate in the state.

According to the latest statistics, Williamson County had only 2,903 crimes per 100,000 residents in 1996, almost half the state average.

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"Criminals know, if they get caught, they'll get it pretty rough in Williamson County," says Deputy Hallmark, driving his cruiser along a lonesome stretch of rural highway. "Most people here like it that way."

Williamson County's no-nonsense attitude toward crime has long been the stuff of legend. From El Paso to New Orleans, law-enforcement officers trade anecdotes about their colleagues in central Texas. There's the tale of the first-time drug dealer who accepted a 40-year sentence rather than face a jury of unsympathetic peers here. Or the string of young car thieves who break into tears when told they've been arrested just inside the Williamson County line.

Some say this tough reputation was won through tough law enforcement; others say through fortunate demographic trends. But at a time when communities around the country are looking for solutions to crime, Williamson County's success offers a window into the often-emotional debate of what works in the war on crime, and whether that war may go too far.

"In general, if you have an older population, with higher incomes, living in largely rural areas, then you'll have a lower crime rate," says Dennis Longmire, professor of criminal justice at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. "That's a pretty good description of Williamson County."

Indeed, the tranquil county seat of Georgetown is a picture postcard of an era gone by. Near the county courthouse, quaint antique shops and cafes are filled with the predominantly white and middle-class families who settled this area 150 years ago.

But for county officials, the reasons for Williamson County's low crime rate are rooted in the attitudes, not the income levels, of the people who elect them.

"The early settlers of this county were Swedes and Germans and Czechs," says Judge John Carter. "Those are real no-nonsense, sweat-of-the-brow people." Even today, he says, those attitudes play out in the courtrooms and polling booths. "The juries set the standard, they give tough sentences."

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It's all in the attitude

Sheriff Ed Richards agrees that Williamson County's crime rate is linked to the attitudes of its citizens. "The story of law enforcement in Williamson County," he says, "is that the more people move in, the more calls we get, and the more deputies we put on the street." He pauses. "We do create a presence."

For the most part, that presence is welcome, particularly in Georgetown. Atop the courthouse dome, loudspeakers play old cowboy songs by Tex Owens and the Sons of the Pioneers, setting the mood for the town's 150th anniversary. On a side street, deputies on horseback prepare to guide a dozen ill-humored longhorns in a mock cattle drive down Main Street.

The small crowd gathered to watch the festivities is well aware of the county's reputation, and proud of it too.

"I think it's great," says H.R. Bud Lee, a rancher who has run cattle in this county for 50 years. "People just don't put up with crime."

Even some convicts say they respect how Williamson County has kept its crime rate low. "If it's anything to do with alcohol and drugs, they won't tolerate it," says Dale Huckabay, wearing black-and-white striped prison garb while performing community service in the final days of his four-month DWI sentence. "If you get that kind of message out, it'll bring the crime rate down."

But this tough-on-crime approach also has its detractors. Some longtime residents and defense lawyers say the county justice system undermines individual civil liberties to accomplish the goal of safety for society as a whole.

Consider the case of Michael Hainze.

Last fall, after a long bout with depression, Mr. Hainze threatened to commit suicide outside a convenience store. His uncle, Tracy Cluck, says he called the sheriff's department to escort Hainze to a mental hospital. But when deputies arrived, Mr. Cluck says, they piled out of their cars with weapons drawn and ended up shooting Hainze twice in the chest and once in his hand. (Hainze survived the shooting. With a civil lawsuit pending against the sheriff's department, Sheriff Richards says he is unable to discuss the details of the case.)

"Clearly, they need to take a really hard look at how they train their officers," says Cluck, adding that Williamson County requires only three months of training compared with the nine-month standard of most urban counties. In the meantime, Cluck has moved his own family out of the county, where his ancestors have lived since the 1860s. "I don't feel safe in Williamson County," he says.

Jail scare

Lisa Russell-Fife has her own story about the Williamson County Sheriff's Department. Last spring, she, her husband, and 67 teenagers at their home were handcuffed and locked in jail overnight after law-enforcement officers found small amounts of alcohol at a party. The occasion was her son's last night at home before he went off to boot camp for the Army Reserve. But it coincided with graduation night, when sheriff's deputies led a team of local police in sting operations against various local celebrations.

"Those were misdemeanor charges; they could have written us tickets," says Mrs. Russell-Fife, a mortgage broker. But while she says she and her husband would never have served alcohol to minors, they have pleaded no contest to the charges. "I'm afraid to complain. I have an 18-year-old boy driving around this county."

Defense lawyer Jim Harrington says the credo of Williamson County, and the sheriff's department in particular, seems to be "you'll be kicked around if you mess around."

But he warns that these tactics may backfire on the county. "Williamson County is heading for a clash," predicts Mr. Harrington, head of the Texas Civil Rights Project in Austin. "They still believe in cowboy justice. Well, you can't run an operation like that without clashing with the middle class. People might not blink an eye when police beat up a Hispanic male in East Austin, but do it to the middle class and they'll fight back."

County officials counter that Williamson County's toughness never comes at the expense of basic civil liberties. And in any case, complaints are rare.

"I have a relatively low tolerance level for infractions by police officers," says District Attorney Ken Anderson, whose team of prosecutors boasts a 90 percent conviction rate in jury trials.

In his cruiser, Deputy Hallmark says the sheriff's department works hard to keep officers well-trained and under control.

"When people overreact, they weren't prepared mentally for what happened," he says, pulling into the brick sheriff's department headquarters in the center of Georgetown. "Obviously, in any department, there are instances where that has happened, but in most cases that particular officer didn't need to be an officer."

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