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2015 Mayoral manifesto: Public safety

Preliminaries
Transportation

When I first started thinking about this series a couple of months ago, this section was all going to be about the budget. We’ve covered this ground before – public safety is about 65% of the total city budget, yet it’s always “off limits” for consideration when there are shortfalls. It’s always the rest of the budget that gets the axe when cuts have to be made. Politically, I doubt anyone thinks they can lose votes by being “for” public safety and against any cuts to it. I’m not advocating cuts, I’m advocating the same level of scrutiny and due diligence for the public safety budget as for the rest of the budget.

Just at an abstract level, it’s impossible to believe that a hundreds-of-millions of dollars budget involving thousands of people, hundreds of departments, and multiple layers of management could not be refined and made more efficient. Here in Houston we have the specific example of thousands of uninvestigated criminal cases, for which as far as I can tell there still hasn’t been a reckoning by HPD. Chief McClelland’s response has been to ask for more money to hire more officers. My response to that is that we need to know a lot more about how the money HPD gets now is being spent. Maybe we do need more cops, and maybe we do need to spend more money on HPD. But that can’t be the default answer. We need to know more about how things are being done now. Only then can we know what we should be doing differently.

Public safety includes the fire department as well, and HFD has its own issues. Twice in the last five years HFD has exceeded its budget due to greater than expected overtime expenditures, caused at least in part by the way vacation time is scheduled. As crime has gone down nationally, so have the number of fires. The vast majority of calls to HFD are EMT calls, not fire calls. As with HPD, it is fair to ask, are we making the best use of our resources, and getting the best value for our tax dollars? I want a Mayor who will not be afraid to ask those questions.

One place where there appears to be general consensus is with body cameras. Everybody wants them, and thanks to a grant from the District Attorney, we have a plan to outfit HPD, Sheriff’s deputies, and constables with them. This is great, but it’s a first step. What will be the rules for their usage? How accessible will the video data be, and who will have access to it? What will HPD’s discipline policy be towards officers who fail to use them properly? Do we have a plan to get cameras for Metro cops? Let’s hear some details.

The discipline policies and practices for HPD in general need a long, hard look. It’s very rare for officers to be punished for excessive force complaints, even in the face of overwhelming (and sometimes video) evidence. Between 2007 and 2012, according to HPD records, officers killed citizens in 109 shootings. Every killing was ruled justified. The process needs an overhaul, and more public involvement. I want to hear Mayoral candidates address these issues, and not just give me the same paeans and platitudes we’ve gotten in past campaigns.

Note that I haven’t said anything about pensions. I don’t see the need to, since we’re not going to be able to avoid hearing about them from the candidates. The issue is central to the candidacies of at least two of the hopefuls so far. What any of them might promise to do that Mayor Parker hasn’t already tried, especially given the lack of interest by the Legislature in getting involved, is an open question. I’m sure they’ll tell us something.

Everyone agrees that something needs to be done about the city’s criminal justice complex. Everyone also agrees that it will be hella expensive to do something about it. One possible way to reduce the cost might be to rent instead of repairing or rebuilding, but not everyone is happy with that option. Given that this is almost certainly an item that will wind up on the next Mayor’s to do list, it would be nice to know what they think the current Mayor should do about it.

Mayor Parker recently said that “we need a complete rethinking of the nation’s drug laws”. What do the Mayoral candidates think about that? Will they push for HPD to use its authority to write citations for low level drug offenses instead of making arrests?

It seems likely that some form of “sanctuary cities” legislation will be signed into law this session. That will require local police forces to inquire about the immigration status of someone detained or arrested by a police officer or risk losing state funds. Who among the Mayoral candidates will be willing to speak out against this? Will anyone promise to at least investigate the possibility of filing a federal lawsuit to overturn such a law if one is enacted?

Finally, there was a lot of talk in the 2009 Mayor’s race about getting the various law enforcement agencies that operate in and around Houston to work together better. There’s been some progress on this, most notably in the area of radio communications, but overall it’s been a low profile issue. Where do the current crop of candidates see room for improvement on this? To tie this back to an earlier point, one large police force in Houston that isn’t in line to get body cameras yet is the Metro police force. Do the candidates have an opinion about that?

One more of these entries to go. Let me know what you think.

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7 Comments

  1. Steven Houston says:

    As your subject matter expert in the field, a few comments from the peanut gallery. Large organizations resist change, from those at the top that see their compensation tied to the size of budget or number of employees to middle management that resist giving up resources without losing associated responsibilities to the low level employees that resist being moved to a worse assignment or lose choice days off. Both HFD and HPD want more to work with, not less, as a means of expansion where they will answer cries for help faster, catch more crooks, save more lives etc. As both organizations get very little outside blood, you work your way up the ranks with the possible exception of Chief in both cases, the entire structure begets the idea that “this is the way we’ve always done it”.

    And while we’d like to think that employees are the only ones that feel the impact of changes, this is not the case as shortfalls can mean closing down specific fire stations or forcing those fighting tickets to have to come back more often when austerity measures reduce how often an officer is allowed to go to court, scheduled appearances be darned. Are citizens okay with waiting an extra couple of minutes during an attack or an extra hour for a delayed response or is it more important to have more investigators following up on theft cases? These are not truly questions for the police but for the public and elected representatives to answer. Deferring to the expertise of self serving political appointees on command staffs has allowed many problems to fester.

    In terms of discipline, reports from the Chief are that other officers account for the bulk of complaints, to the tune of around 75%. Focusing on the cases of people being shot and killed is okay but frankly, given the level of scrutiny both inside and outside of the department on such, there are reasons why all of them were justified. Contrary to most statistical norms, such events are NOT random and therefore do NOT fall on a bell curve no matter how much some want that to be the case. All it takes to be legally justified is fear, an emotion available in great quantity these days. After all, people in fear embellish their initial calls to police when calling 911, often laying the groundwork for more aggressive police responses. Ways fear can be reduced include requiring, not just allowing, two officers to ride in a patrol car together, increased tactical training, not just sitting in a class while someone reads a lengthy policy conceived by idiots that haven’t been on the streets dealing with crime in decades.

    As far as the Justice Complex is concerned, the decision to go with an “all or nothing” approach as the current administration has done weakens the resolve for a better solution. Notable Houston Attorney and brother of popular city councilman Paul Kubosh probably has more time inside the municipal courthouse than virtually anyone else and he seems to think it is fine while self serving experts would pour tremendous amounts of money into the building. Surely there is a cheaper solution to be found somewhere between the two extremes (though I lean towards Paul’s expertise). With that as a guideline, who is to say that similar perspectives are not to be found for the other parts of the complex?

    As far as Body Cameras are concerned, a very lengthy policy detailing a great many things, was all but finished last year and the DA’s grant, while generous, will not provide all officers with one. The prediction remains, in most cases, the resulting footage will benefit the officer and/or police department but in most cases, footage captured at night or during inclement weather will not be usable with current technology. I suspect local activists will spin that into accusations but by all means take a look at look at some of it.

    In terms of sanctuary city legislation, unless the state comes up with a workable plan of where to stack the bodies, demanding city police inquire as to status of those they deal with could be an exercise in futility. By Executive Order, the feds have put about half the illegals in a protected status but where exactly would the other half go? The county doesn’t want them, the city is in the process of getting out of the jailing business, and the feds almost never take custody. Those who are under arrest for a Class B and above offense are already processed with regard to status so that is not a huge concern.

    All three pension systems have shown a willingness to talk to city officials when it comes to increasing benefits while one refuses to speak to them at all about cuts demanded by the mayor. The state is not going to help a democratic mayor who has openly professed a desire for higher office and even if one trick pony King were to be elected, they would not give him the keys to the candy store. Two systems have made major concessions over the years and all they have to show for it are steadily increasing deficits except for years when their market returns are way above average.

  2. PDiddie says:

    I’d like to see the city do more with regard to the one million-plus homeless dogs and cats left to roam the neighborhoods and die too soon, either under the wheels of an auto or slower from disease and malnutrition. Just as with potholes, the city cannot keep up. Nobody wants police officers and their weapons to address issues with the unowned the same way they do our pets, either.

    What the mayor has done is worth commending, but that’s a band-aid on a gaping wound. Confronting the issue before strays are impounded is a task that shouldn’t be left to the volunteer organizations. This growing problem can’t wait for a contagion, canine or human, before someone takes action.

    Related: new dog parks are great, but if people are carrying weapons there, ready to shoot if there’s an altercation between dogs, then we have a whole new challenge that I for one hope open carry isn’t meant to solve.

  3. Steven Houston says:

    PDiddie, what do you propose the city does with these animals? Clearly shelters don’t work for large numbers given statistics of animals put to sleep (compared to the number HPD shot when a specific threat was posed, 121 over a 3.5 year period, BARC killed over 20k a year on average for years-few of which posed a specific risk to anyone), adoption programs are great but can’t handle to sheer numbers involved, and spaying programs help but not enough. And the huge increase to BARC in city funding made last year is about to come to a screeching halt if the city budget problem cannot be fixed soon, the dependence on donations expected to fail at some time in the near future.

  4. PDiddie says:

    A good bit more than they have been doing.

    You’re correct that larger BARC facilities and funding, adoption efforts on the part of volunteer orgs, and ultimately killing abandoned pets are not the answer, have not lessened the problems.

    It must begin with educating communities on spay and neuter, and following that up with regular events which offer the service free of charge. You gradually reduce the “effect” issues with this one effort. It’s a very slow crawl toward the only humane solution.

  5. Steven Houston says:

    BARC takes in around 25k animals a year and recent claims that the rate animals are put down far less come with considerable skepticism (that animals are actually being reclassified to lower the rate). A few thousand sent to Colorado, a few hundred neuter jobs, and making a whooping 69 adoptions one day really seem like drops of rain in a thunderstorm. I guess what I was asking you for were ready made solutions that could be trotted out immediately because education has been around for decades and doesn’t seem to have had a big impact.

    And as much of an animal lover as I am, my own two rescue dogs serving as a prime example, I don’t see many future mayors pouring nearly as much money into BARC as Parker has done of late. That extra $10 million or so last year to hire more staff and build the bigger facility is going to get met with $50 a barrel oil, triple digit deficits, and higher priorities for most people. That is why low cost solutions are going to become very important in coming years.

  6. PDiddie says:

    ” I guess what I was asking you for were ready made solutions that could be trotted out immediately”

    If I had some of those, I’d be running for mayor.

  7. Steven Houston says:

    Having the answers to a single issue that only small percentages of area residents care much about would not qualify you to run for mayor. But as someone else who cares, when you can’t offer a workable solution to a problem, politicians tend to move onward for lower hanging fruit. Throwing money at it won’t work, nor will increasing educational components given the consistent numbers of animals picked up. It has been suggested to me that rather than saving 70% or more of the animals coming in, the city is simply reclassifying a great many more so they do not fall into the wrong category. Given Houston’s willingness to play games with semantics and statistics in the past, I have to admit that I suspect this is true too.

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