Tis the season for Mayoral candidates to send out position papers on various issues. I’ve gotten a couple in my mailbox in the past few days and want to spend a little time examining them. First up is Annise Parker’s Plan For 21st Century Policing In Houston. My thoughts on this are as follows.
- I’m in general agreement with the priorities Parker lays out in this document. I daresay I’d feel the same way about Peter Brown or Gene Locke’s as well – I don’t think there’s a whole lot of dispute about the big picture, in that everyone wants more police, better use of technology, better bang for the buck, better coordination among local law enforcement agencies, et cetera. The devil, as always, is in the details. Which leads me to the first point of discussion.
- Like most candidates, Parker wants to increase the size of HPD, but doesn’t go into any detail about the cost:
I will protect the police department budget in this economic downturn.
We learned a hard lesson when the city closed down the police academy to save money during the last major economic downturn in the 1980s. It took years to recover from that mistake. As Mayor, I will do everything in my power to maintain and, if possible, increase the police budget.
Protecting our law enforcement budget without raising taxes is a difficult but necessary balancing act. My 12 years as a City Councilmember and as Controller have prepared me for the challenge. I have a track record of fiscal responsibility, using tough audits to cut millions of dollars in fraud and waste – money that is now funding priorities like police, firefighters, after-school programs and economic development.
Parker goes on to say that she wants to add more cops to the force. There’s broad consensus for that, though given that Houston’s crime rate is down, it’s not clear to me how much more is really needed. Be that as it may, the fact remains that due to pension and salary outlays we’re budgeting a lot more for HPD these days without a significant increase in the size of the force. Adding in more officers will add to these costs, possibly a lot. I don’t know how much you can realistically hope to pay for without putting a tax increase, or at least a new revenue stream, on the table. If we want more police, we need to be willing to pay for it. I’ve heard the “waste, fraud, and abuse” mantra my whole life, and I don’t have a whole lot of faith in it. I believe in Parker’s financial acumen, but I think that only gets us so far.
- Like just about every candidate I’ve interviewed, Parker wants HPD to work more efficiently with other local law enforcement agencies.
I will direct my police chief to develop and implement a plan to better coordinate and cooperate with other local law enforcement agencies.
Dozens of law enforcement agencies have jurisdiction over parts of Houston. Their officers are certified peace officers who can enforce the law. All of our budgets are under stress. It is imperative that we improve coordination among these agencies.
If you’re being robbed, you don’t care whether it is HPD, a sheriff’s deputy or a constable who comes to your aid – as long as they have a badge and a gun and they can keep you safe.
In order to do this, agencies must be able to talk directly to each other. The city has invested in a radio system that will allow many law enforcement agencies to communicate with each other. But the obstacles to improving coordination among law enforcement agencies are less about a lack of technology and more about a lack of leadership and priorities. That’s why I will direct my chief to come up with a plan to work cooperatively with other agencies, and I will personally reach out to other jurisdictions to make it happen.
Again, it’s clear there’s broad consensus on this, and I’ve no doubt that better use of technology can help. What I want to know, though, is what incentive the other agencies – the Sheriff, the constables, Metro, HISD, whoever else – have to cooperate with HPD. The implication of Parker’s scenario is that someone other than an HPD officer could be the first responder. What do we have to offer to them to make that kind of cooperation with us worth their time and resources? I feel like I’ve heard people talk about this for a long time, and beyond the question of radio incompatibilities, it’s not clear to me what’s preventing this from happening now. What do these other agencies think about this?
- I’m totally down with the idea of an independent crime lab, and I agree there’s momentum at the county level to get that done. Funding is always an issue, and I wonder if we may need legislative action as well. If that’s the case, what can we do before the 2011 legislative session, and how can we grease the skids in advance to ensure that the necessary bills get through the process?
- The idea to contract with Harris County for jail services and ultimately eliminate the city’s lockup facility is one place where there isn’t a consensus – Parker and Locke support this concept, Brown opposes it. As I said before, it should be a simple enough matter to ask the county to give us an estimate, and from there we can see if there is a savings to be realized or not. Certainly, we will need to wait until the county gets its jail overcrowding issues under control, and I remain optimistic that this can be done, or at least mostly done, without building a new jail.
- Parker, who is known to be no fan of HPD Chief Harold Hurtt, talks at length about what qualities she wants in the replacement she’ll hire for him. One quality I hope this person will have is a willingness to implement better witness ID procedures, as well as video recording interrogations, which is something he or she will have to do over the objections of one of the unions. I do not understand HPOU’s intransigence on this, and I see it as an economic issue as well as a moral one. Never mind the fact that every innocent person that gets convicted means one more guilty person is free to roam the streets.
- I don’t see anything in Parker’s plan that touches on the subject of immigration, in particular the matter of the 287(g) program, which has come up frequently in the campaign. Not that Parker’s position on this isn’t known, or inconsistent with the other candidates’ positions, I was just a little surprised to see it not get mentioned in this document.
- Finally, I want to stress again that I’m generally in agreement with Parker’s principles here. I obviously have some questions about how she hopes to implement some of her ideas, but that certainly doesn’t mean I think they’re unworthy ideas. I also don’t think there’s anything unusual in the approach of being heavy on goals and light on detailed steps for achieving them; given that several of these ideas would require the cooperation of other governmental bodies and/or non-City of Houston officials, one can’t really be specific about the actions you’ll want or need them to take at this point. These are just my thoughts about these ideas.