From the inbox:
Houstonians do not feel safe in their homes and their communities. Houston’s crime numbers remain dangerously high and criminals are victimizing us daily. The only thing we hear from the Mayor’s office on this issue is silence. It is unacceptable.
“As Mayor, I will make sure that criminals know this City belongs to the law-abiding, and not to criminals. Criminals are not welcome in this city! I intend to send a clear message that we will no longer sit by and allow criminals to hurt, kill and maim the innocent. Your time is up in Houston!” said mayoral candidate Ben Hall. “The current mayor has announced no effective plan to address the problem, instead believing this to be a designated function of just the police. Leadership is needed to set a tone of intolerance for criminal conduct in this city. The consequences of crime are too high for a mayor to remain silent.”
Houston has witnessed too much horror at the hands of criminals. A few days ago, armed robbers opened fire in a Denny’s fatally shooting a grandfather who was shielding children from flying bullets. Shortly thereafter, burglars broke into Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s home and stole his weapon. This must stop!
Contrary to what Ms. Parker claimed earlier this year, Houston has a growing problem with crime. According to FBI crime numbers, Houston murders, robberies, and theft went up between 2011 and 2012. In 2012, Houston experienced 26,630 burglaries, the highest number in the entire country. “It seems that the truth just does not matter to Mayor Parker,” continued Hall. “Crime is too important an issue to play politics with.”
As mayor, Hall is committed to making public safety a top priority and has set forth a five-point plan to tackle this epidemic. His plan includes:
- Increasing collaboration between all local law enforcement authorities and upgrading radio communications;
- Increasing crime deterrence initiatives in neighborhoods with the use of camera technology;
- Stabilizing pension challenges for law enforcement and first-responders and increasing the number of officers;
- Having non-violent criminals pay off their sentences by performing community services; and
- Expanding job creation programs for first-time offenders to prevent re-imprisonment.
This five-point policy proposal will be further detailed at www.BenHallforMayor.com.
I’ve been critical of Hall’s largely details-free campaign so far, and while this isn’t exactly a dissertation it is something specific to examine and critique. Kudos for that, and I hope that promise about further detailing is kept. Now let’s take a look at what is there.
Item 1 is something we’ve seen before. It was a campaign issue in 2009. In fact, Annise Parker, Gene Locke, and Peter Brown all made promises about better coordination with other agencies and upgraded communications equipment. It would be totally fair to examine Mayor Parker’s record and point out wherever she has fallen short.
Item 2 is also something we’ve seen before. The city of Houston already has an extensive network of surveillance cameras, in places like downtown, Westchase, the Medical Center, and on Metro buses and trains. There may be an argument for putting them in other parts of town. There’s also an argument that surveillance cameras generally have no effect on crime and raise legitimate concerns about privacy and government overreach (*cough* *cough* NSA *cough* *cough*). As with item 1, just having it as a bullet point on a campaign platform is not enough to tell us what your intentions are.
I have no idea what “stabilizing pension challenges” has to do with crimefighting, but then Hall has been deliberately vague about his pension plans all along. Unlike the firefighters’ pension plan, the police pension fund is already subject to meet and confer, and it has made numerous concessions to the city in recent years. As for hiring more officers, again this is something everyone promised in 2009. Mayor Parker also promised to shield the public safety budget from the axe in 2010. Far as I know, she kept that promise, as no police officers or firefighters were laid off, but again it would be totally fair to examine that in more detail.
It’s not clear what exactly a Mayor can do about Item Four. At the very least, one would need to have a conversation with the Harris County District Attorney, the various criminal court judges, and possibly the Legislature to make this happen. I favor the idea, but as always, it’s a question of how Hall plans to achieve it. One thing the Mayor could do is direct HPD to issue citations instead of arresting traffic violators and low level drug offenders, as that would help keep the jails from getting too crowded and would allow the cops to stay on the streets more instead of spending hours hauling these non-violent and mostly non-scary people downtown and processing them. Unlike some of these other issues, no one was proposing that back in 2009, and it would likely cause a fair amount of pushback from HPD, which would require spending some political capital to implement it.
Finally, on Item 5, a similar proposal was offered as an amendment to this year’s city budget. The amendment, made by CM Larry Green and backed by CM C.O. Bradford, was to allocate $3 million for a summer jobs program for youth. That’s not exactly the same thing, but it has the same goal.
That also highlights a point that is implicit in these proposals but is otherwise unmentioned, and that’s that most of them will cost money. Upgrading communications equipment costs money. So do surveillance cameras. Houston bought some of the latter with federal Homeland Security grants, and I believe they got some grants for the former as well, but those grants may be harder to come by in this day and age of sequestration and general Republican nihilism. (Good luck calling on either of our Senators to do some budget mojo on our behalf.) Public safety is already the single biggest piece of the budget, and hiring more officers would add to that. I generally support most of Hall’s proposals, and in the case of those that have been around for a few years I’ve supported them all along, but each of these things starts with the question of how Hall, or any Mayor, would pay for them. Not to keep beating a dead horse, but this is why the details matter. Having worthwhile goals is nice. Having worthwhile goals and a clear path to achieving them is necessary. We can’t properly evaluate Hall’s plan without knowing his plan to fund it.
UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story, which includes a point I hadn’t considered.
As for Hall’s plan to have inmates work off their sentences instead of sitting in their cells, Parker campaign spokeswoman Sue Davis said city inmates stay an average of 24 hours before being released or transferred to the county lockup, making it impractical to put them to work.
Hall said it is the same taxpayers footing the bill, regardless of the jail. He said he is interested in finding a way to put county or city inmates to work on behalf of the public.
“While we’d always want to work with the city to maximize that resource, there’s not a lot of room for expansion,” said Alan Bernstein, spokesman for Sheriff Adrian Garcia, who runs the county jail.
All low-level, nonviolent county jail inmates willing and eligible to participate in outside work already do so, Bernstein said. As of Monday, 196 inmates were approved for outside work, performing graffiti abatement, tree planting and beautification along bayous and other public rights of way, Bernstein said. That number is difficult to increase because more inmates – 793, on Monday – are needed inside the jail for chores the county otherwise would have to pay for, he said.
I was thinking about the legalities of the proposal, but the practicalities need to be considered as well.