Friday September 11, 2015
Two years ago, the Houston Police Department resolved only 8% of the burglary complaints that were reported. Last year (2014), that abysmal statistic got even worse, with only 6% of burglary reports cleared. The only major law enforcement agency in the nation with a worse record was the Harris County Sherriff’s Office, with only 3% of burglaries cleared. The numbers are not much better for robberies. Perhaps most disturbing of all, more than half of sexual assault cases went unresolved. There’s no need to wonder why criminals would continue perpetrating these acts: someone who invades your home has a better-than-90% chance of getting away with the crime.
The failure to get crime under control has a disproportionate impact on economically-disadvantaged neighborhoods. Too many children in Houston grow up without hope because police seem to have given up on trying to help their communities. Well-paying jobs are chased from these areas, furthering the cycle of economic despair.
I have enormous respect for each and every person who wears a badge and risks his or her life to make the community safe for the rest of us. But it’s time to face the fact that there is a fundamental management problem at HPD. The Department’s budget has doubled in the past decade and is now getting close to a billion dollars each year. These resources have not translated into more officers on the streets. It’s time for a Mayor who will ask the tough questions and begin demanding results from the Department’s leadership.
What follows are a few of my suggestions for creating a more effective police department that delivers value for every tax dollar spent.
Close the Troubled Crime Lab
Harris County just opened a state-of-the-art crime lab facility, and they have plenty of extra capacity that would allow for a fruitful partnership with the City of Houston. Meanwhile, City Hall continues to use your tax dollars to prop up a city crime lab that has been repeatedly discredited by allegations of shoddy work and unreliable results. The City of Pasadena just announced that they would consolidate their labs with the county, saving them $5 million per year.
Disband the Mounted Patrol
Why do we still pay for this anachronism? Some say that mounted officers are good for crowd control, but the thought of a large, excitable animal confronting a boisterous crowd seems to me like a recipe for disaster. These units are useless for traffic enforcement and many other functions that other patrol officers perform. And horses are not police cars: these noble creatures require constant care whether or not there is any need for them at a given moment.
Use Modern Training and Data-Driven Policing Techniques
The science of effective law enforcement has made extraordinary progress in recent years. New techniques to data-driven policing have helped other big-city departments bring high crime rates under control. Officers in Houston should have access to top-of-the-line training that will increase effectiveness and ensure that constitutional rights are respected.
Fix the Pensions
If nothing is done to avert the impending crisis, pension payments will take up nearly half of the City’s annual property tax revenue by the year 2020. The City’s unsustainable financial situation makes it difficult to commit resources to new initiatives. In order to stabilize the City’s balance sheet, I have developed a plan that allows current retirees and current employees of the department to keep 100% of their promised benefits.
The City simply needs to pick a date in the near future, and after that date only offer 401k-style defined-contribution retirement plans for newly-hired employees. Everyone else will keep their old pension plan. Some will argue that switching over from a defined-benefit system will make it harder to hire new police and other city employees. I disagree: for younger adults trying to decide on a career path, the availability of signing bonuses, family leave, and student loan assistance are much more important factors than the specifics of a retirement package that is 30 years down the road. And signing bonuses are much, much cheaper to offer as compared to guaranteed retirement packages.
Use Outside Reviews and Zero-Based Budgets
It’s nothing against the hardworking people of HPD: in general, bureaucratic organizations tend to grow their budgets and payrolls over time, unless strong oversight compels them to do otherwise. As the next mayor I will require every city department, including HPD, to adopt zero-based budget practices where every single dollar of taxpayer money is accounted for and justified. I will make sure that HPD is reviewed by outside consultants for cost savings and effective policing practices.
Right-Size the Command Structure
What keeps the streets safe is having “boots on the ground.” The number of patrol officers is about the same as it was 15 years ago, despite a significant increase in the city’s population. I suspect that the growing number of positions for Assistant Chiefs and other command positions is being driven by something other than need or public demand. Sure, everyone wants a fancy-sounding title after a few years on the job, but getting officers out of the stations and onto the streets is the only reliable way to reduce crime rates.
I believe that everyone at HPD wants to see crime rates driven down and communities freed from fear. With the right leadership at City Hall, we can empower the Department to achieve that goal.