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Cops and crime

The news is mixed, though I see it as being presented as more bad than good.

Houston has a higher rate of violent crime than any other Texas city and ranks among the highest in the nation, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of FBI crime data in the 25 most populous U.S. cities.

The city also has fewer police officers per capita or per square mile than the national average, the analysis shows.

In the nearly six years of Mayor Bill White’s administration, the number of police officers has remained roughly the same, despite the Houston Police Department budget increasing more than 40 percent since 2004, from about $480 million to $680 million for fiscal 2010. That increase is due almost entirely to the ballooning costs of salaries, pension and health care benefits built into police contracts with the city.

The federal government last week declined to provide stimulus funding for additional police academy classes based on the city’s fiscal health and recent declines in Houston’s crime rate compared to previous years. Overall crime in the city is as low as it has been in decades, but looming budgetary problems have led to cuts in overtime and plans for only two police academy classes this year, compared to an average of five a year since White took office.

Several City Council members and mayoral candidates have voiced concern that recent gains may not last.

“That’s a recipe for disaster, and I’m not being overdramatic,” City Councilman Mike Sullivan said of staffing and overtime shortages.

“There’s no doubt that there’s going to be a spike in crime as a result of this,” said Gary Blankinship, president of the Houston Police Officers Union. “We have to learn to work smarter and try to use technology a little bit more, but some hard decisions may have to be made and some other city budgets may have to be looked at. Tough times cause people to have to make tough decisions.”

White said drastically increasing police staffing could cause a different kind of downward spiral: double-digit property tax increases that would price many Houstonians out of their homes. Instead, he said, the city has made better use of technology to ensure officers are more productive, building a 24-hour crime analysis center and redeploying more than 300 officers from desk jobs to the streets.

“It’s not just a matter of head count, but it’s the tools and procedures you give police,” he said.

I’ve done about a dozen City Council candidate interviews so far. Everybody voices similar themes regarding crime and the police. Better use of technology is one, better coordination with other law enforcement agencies – the Sheriff’s office, the constables, Metro and HISD police, etc – is another. Everyone also acknowledges that public safety is a huge chunk of the city’s budget. Nobody has explicitly talked about how much it would cost to hire more police officers – and it’s not clear how many “more” is, or needs to be – or how to pay for it. I don’t know how you can add a significant number of officers – note that according to the budget, there has been a modest increase in police staffing since fiscal year 2008 – without some kind of tax increase, but I’m not running for anything, so that’s easy for me to say. I think that until that becomes easy for some actual candidates and officeholders to say, what we’re going to get is more of the same. Which may not be a bad thing – crime in Houston is down, as the story notes. But it is, at least for now, what we’re willing to pay for. Grits has more.

UPDATE: While HPD didn’t get stimulus money to hire more cops, Metro did.

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