I have to say, I’m not impressed.
Defending his department’s failure to investigate thousands of crimes last year, Police Chief Charles McClelland on Thursday said the understaffed Houston Police Department does not and should not have a goal of aggressively probing every crime reported to it.
“We work violent crimes first. If someone steals your trash can or your lawn mower out of your garage, there are no witnesses, there’s no evidence, there’s nothing for a detective to follow up on, it’s not assigned,” McClelland, a 37-year veteran of HPD, told City Council members during a budget hearing. “There has never been a time that I have been employed there that the Houston Police Department has had the capacity to investigate every crime that’s been reported to the agency.”
The chief bristled at the idea that his agency should be expected to throw manpower at all 1.2 million annual calls for service and stressed that his command team knew it had too few officers long before the report was released.
“If you read the work demands analysis, it only recommends 100 additional detectives; the greatest staffing recommendation is for patrol,” McClelland said. “A hundred more detectives will not give the capacity to work 20,000 cases. They’re very minor crimes. I don’t want to dismiss that if someone was a victim of crime, but they are.”
McClelland said he has read the 207-page document and has asked his executive team members to do the same. The chiefs will meet to discuss the report soon, he said, then will present staffing recommendations to Mayor Annise Parker.
“It’s something we know cannot be resolved in one budget year or two budget years,” he said, “but we do have to put a plan in place to address it.”
HPD is budgeting for 5,305 classified officers in the new fiscal year, a rate of 246 officers per 100,000 people. Comparing Houston to the nation’s 10 largest cities that rate of police staffing falls roughly in the middle, well behind Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, but solidly ahead of cities such as San Antonio and San Diego, according to 2012 FBI data.
Within Texas, Houston falls similarly in the middle. Dallas has 283 officers per 100,000 people. The rate in Austin is 204; in San Antonio, it is 166.
The original story said these were cases “with workable leads”, so Chief McClelland’s statement about “there are no witnesses, there’s no evidence, there’s nothing for a detective to follow up on, it’s not assigned” is disingenuous. I’ve no doubt that all police departments prioritize, but on the surface this looks and sounds really bad. One way to demonstrate that maybe it isn’t as bad as it looks would be to provide comparisons to other large urban police departments. I suspect that’s outside the scope of this report, however. It would still bee interesting to know. It would also be interesting to know what HPD is prioritizing over these cases, since Chief McClelland refers to working violent crimes first. The main problem with that statement is that we know that HPD has also had an issue with homicide cases not being worked. One presumes those are the highest priority cases. All of which is to say, what’s going on in the department? Claims of short-staffing may be accurate, but they only go so far, especially for a department that has seen its funding go up by more than fifty percent over the past decade. I hope the Chief’s executive team members read that report very closely.
Now, for sure we’re going to have a debate about staffing levels at HPD, and how its resources are being deployed. Just keep in mind those statistics cited above regarding the relative number of officers in Houston compared to other cities. In terms of cops per population, we’re in the middle of the pack, not near or at the bottom. Maybe we do need more cops, or maybe we just need to use the ones we have more efficiently. And that much-ballyhooed report itself adds some context, on pages 27 and 28:
The appendix at the end of the report contains a number of benchmarks comparing Houston to other state and national jurisdictions in several crime categories. First is a comparison of 2012 FBI UCR violent and property crime data benchmarking Houston’s crime and department staffing levels against San Antonio, Dallas, Austin and Fort Worth in order to make baseline crime comparisons. Of the five cities, Houston had the highest violent crime rate but fell in the middle for property crime rates.
Staffing comparisons were made to benchmark Houston’s sworn, civilian, and combined staffing against the same four state and five national jurisdictions using 2012 UCR data. For each agency, the percentage of each department’s sworn and civilian personnel is shown.
Next, 2012 UCR data was used to compare Houston’s crime and staffing levels against those of five relatively similar police departments nationally: Philadelphia, PA; Phoenix, AZ; Memphis, TN; Washington, DC; and Baltimore, MD. Compared nationally against other large cities, Houston had the second-lowest violent crime rate but the second-highest property crime rate.
Lastly, crime trend analysis was performed for the City of Houston by reviewing FBI Part I UCR data. We analyzed violent crime and property crime rates (including rates per thousand), and analyzed each of the four individual violent crime categories (homicide, rape, aggravated assault and robbery) and three individual property crime categories (burglary, larceny/theft, and auto theft) over a 10-year period. Both violent crime and property crime rates show a downward trend.
You can see the charts they reference in the first appendix, starting on page 149. To cut to the chase, from 2003 to 2012, the violent crime rate in Houston has dropped from 11.8 per 1000 residents to 9.9 per 1000, and the property crime rate has fallen from 58.8 to 49.5. The amount of crime isn’t increasing, despite some gloom and doom predictions a few years ago. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think we could and should be doing better with the resources we’ve got.
But let’s stipulate that some more resources are needed. What should we prioritize?
McClelland stressed that recruiting is a struggle for the agency, in part because HPD’s starting salary is lower than those of other Texas police agencies. Council recently approved a $5,000 bonus for new cadets. The last class before the bonus started with 30 applicants, he said, and has dropped to about 25. Another class starting in the coming days – after the bonus was implemented – will begin with about 70 cadets, he said.
The chief’s view was echoed by Officer Doug Griffith, of the Houston Police Officers’ Union.
“A 24-year-old Marine coming here could care less if we have a botanical gardens or Uber or anything else,” he said, referring to issues the council has discussed in recent weeks. “What they want is starting salary, and until we get them up to match other cities in this state, we’re not going to get them. We need y’alls help. This is a crisis we’re going to have to work through.”
I’ll grant the salary problems for hiring cadets, but if the report says we only need 100 more detectives, why not start with that? That would cost a lot less than 800 patrol officers, and would likely have a much greater effect on solving these unworked crimes. Patrol officers aren’t there to solve crimes, after all. Texas Leftist and Campos have more.