By ALAN HELFMAN, J.W. “JAY” WALL III and WILLIAM A. WOLFF
Based on the 2005 FBI Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), one can compare crime in Houston to New York City on a per capita basis: In the category of “Violent Crime,” you are: 2.28 times more likely to be murdered; 2.52 times more likely to be raped; 1.78 times more likely to be robbed; 1.65 times more likely to be the victim of aggravated assault.
In the category of “Property Crime,” you are: 4.70 times more likely to be the victim of a burglary; 2.37 times more likely to be the victim of a larceny; 4.41 times more likely to be the victim of an auto theft.
Bottom line . . . New York City is much safer than Houston. We believe the biggest factor in the discrepancy between New York City’s and Houston’s crime rate is that Houston does not have enough police officers. We also strongly believe that by adopting a fundamental change in policing, similar to the program first implemented in New York City in the mid-1990s, we can make significant reductions in Houston’s crime levels, far more than the revised 5.7 percent defined as the reduction in Houston’s crime rate between 2005 and 2006 recently reported by the mayor.
First, the city needs more police officers. Today, Houston has seven cadet classes (approximately 50-70 cadets per class) scheduled for 2007 that will ultimately yield approximately 300 new police officers. Annual retirements of experienced HPD officers average between 225-250 officers per year. Given similar retirement rates, we are at best, “treading water.” New York City has approximately 4.4 police officers / 1,000 population. Houston has approximately 2.1 officers / 1,000 population, well below New York City and below the national average of 2.8 officers / 1,000 population. HPD has been understaffed versus national norms for many years. Police Chief Harold Hurtt has repeatedly said that the city has an immediate need for an additional 1,000 officers. Let’s give them to him!
In 2004, shortly after being elected, Mayor White realized that the city had a major problem with funding city employee and HPD pension plans, and the mayor and city council changed the plans. In order to take advantage of a narrow window of opportunity to secure significantly higher pension benefits from HPD in 2004 and 2005, approximately 700 officers left the department, most through retirement.
In a budget-mandated layoff in 2004, more than 200 civilian jailers were laid off, which required officers from every division in the city to be taken off the street and reassigned to jail duty.
These retirements and layoffs, coupled with the difficulties of recruiting, given HPD’s historically low pay scale, particularly when compared to other major city police departments and more specifically to other major Texas cities, have allowed staffing to fall to abysmally depressed levels, which in turn, has made our city one of the most dangerous large cities in the country.
To some extent HPD’s manpower and pay crises have been masked by millions of dollars in overtime pay. According to HPD figures, overtime pay in 2006 was $53 million versus $32 million in 2005, $18 million of which was funded by FEMA. When these FEMA grants run out, police presence will decrease, which will undoubtedly result in more crime.
The mayor is apparently more concerned about balancing the city’s budget than addressing Houston’s crime problem, which is exaggerated by a worsening shortage of police officers and the massive influx of the criminal element from New Orleans.
We, the people, demand something better: First, HPD should have a permanent, non-overtime (non-FEMA) based, increase in pay.
Given the urgent need for additional officers and a forward-thinking approach to our community’s continued renaissance, it should be our city fathers’ goal to make HPD the police department employer of choice in Texas.
Second, in order to address attrition and to minimally get to the national average of 2.8 officers / 1,000 population, we should be adding a minimum of 700 police officers per year for the next three to four years. For 100 percent organic growth, this would require 14-15 classes per year at the police academy. It is entirely possible that by raising pay levels HPD’s retirement rate could decline. Additionally, recruiting seasoned officers from other municipalities could be facilitated and these “transfers” could become a source of new officers for HPD.
Third, the department’s command structure should be reconstituted, flattened and decentralized. Many of HPD’s high-ranking officers (14 assistant chiefs, 43 captains, and 140 lieutenants) should be placed in the field where they could more closely supervise their subordinates. Their dispersal would also heighten the police presence in the community.
Fourth, minimally, the city needs to formally rehire civilian employees who formerly worked at the jail in order to “free-up” an additional 100-125 HPD officers. More radically, the city might consider the possibility of “privatizing” the jail’s operations, opening up the opportunity for both improving the budget and increasing HPD staffing in the field.
Fifth, the city could consider rehiring recently retired HPD officers to help with tasks they could legally perform such as planning, teaching, supervising and reexamining “cold cases,” freeing up HPD officers to patrol the streets.
Sixth, there are legions of FBI, ATF and DEA agents in Houston who had to retire because of their organizations’ mandatory retirement at age 57. These men and women tend to be extremely well educated, well trained, and are worldly in many areas of intelligence gathering and law enforcement that senior HPD officers may not be, such as cyber crime, human trafficking, organized crime, kidnapping, counterterrorism, bank robbery, etc. Many would welcome the opportunity to continue their law enforcement careers.
Seventh, a volunteer reserve unit could be formed, whereby citizens who passed extensive background checks, were properly trained and duly certified as Texas Peace Officers, could work side by side with HPD.
In conclusion, Houston has a significant crime problem and is not adequately addressing that problem. A major component of the problem is a severe shortage of police officers in HPD. The city government has chosen to “White” wash the enormity of the shortage of police officers and downplays the crime problem. We are all for fiscal conservatism, but there are clear steps that can and must be taken to immediately address the shortage of police officers and the untenable levels of crime in our city. If taxes must rise to fund more police, so be it, but as it relates to our crime problem, “more cops” is only part of the answer . . . a fundamental change in our city’s approach to policing is necessary. Such changes could bring 20, 30, perhaps 40 percent reductions in crime over a three- to four-year period, which we will further explore in an article to follow.
Alan Helfman is a local automobile dealer; J.W. “Jay” Wall III and William A. Wolff are commercial real estate brokers, specializing in tenant representation.