Parker should start at beginning to improve public safety


Police matters
An open letter to Parker: Start at the very beginning

Every city, no matter what the size, has certain obligations it must meet before it spends money on nonessential things. As in any household, a family must pay for essentials like rent and food before splurging on cable TV or a new sports car. The exact list of priorities varies from person to person, but most of us can agree that public safety should be a core priority for the city.

To keep Houstonians safe, we suggest new Mayor Annise Parker take the following steps:

  1. Cut the size of the Houston Police Department’s bloated command staff, which has ballooned to an unworkable 14 assistant chiefs. Most management studies find that five to seven directly reporting employees per manager, with a flat management structure, is optimum. HPD has twice that number.
  2. Immediately join Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos and negotiate with Harris County Commissioners Court to establish an independent crime lab. The crime lab is dysfunctional and discredited. The Houston Chronicle recently reported that HPD has not tested 8,000 rape kits. This is inexcusable.
  3. Make better use of DNA testing to help clear property crimes. The Chronicle’s James Pinkerton recently wrote that other cities have utilized DNA to help clear property crimes with extremely good success. Denver was able to reduce the number of burglaries in one area of town by 41 percent after arresting habitual criminals through the use of DNA evidence.
  4. Resolve issues with HPD’s fingerprint-examination lab. According to a recent Chronicle report, an audit found cases in which fingerprints that should have been identified were missed and fingerprints that were readable were identified as unreadable. More than 4,000 prints will have to be re-examined, and it will cost millions of dollars to do so.
  5. Address HPD’s overtime program, which is still being exploited by a small number of employees to provide themselves with six-figure incomes. We believe the system currently in place still allows officers to bill the city while working private security jobs on the city’s clock. Officers draw eight hours’ pay for seven hours’ work.
  6. Postpone the “meet and confer” agreement talks with the Houston Police Officers Union, now scheduled for June, until Parker appoints a new chief and the chief gets a firm grip on the workings of the department.
  7. Clean up the Universal Crime Reporting (FBI crime statistics) by HPD. KHOU-TV’s Mark Greenblatt recently reported incidents of miscategorization of crime reporting to the FBI by the HPD. Greenblatt reported that, over a three-year period, 16 homicides in Houston went unreported or were miscategorized as suicides or accidents. This change resulted in Houston dropping several places on a list comparing the crime rates in cities across the state and nation, making Houston look safer than it actually was.
  8. Tape felony interrogations and confessions. Dated, scientifically questionable physical and photo identification techniques are still utilized at HPD, significantly increasing the chances of misidentification. As much as we want criminals off the streets, we want to make sure the department minimizes the chances of committing serious miscarriages of justice.
  9. Get almost 100 officers out of the human resources and payroll departments and back on the street.
  10. Most important, institute CompStat. Though Houston’s violent crime rate has declined, it has fallen less than crime rates in other big cities around the country. HPD continues to cling to a dated, reactive model of policing, with response times to 911 calls and requests for service used as metrics of success. This approach was abandoned long ago in New York City, Los Angeles and other U.S. cities in favor of the proactive CompStat methodology, which looks at crime reduction as its primary metric. It is an effective managerial methodology that identifies and focuses resources on areas with high levels of criminal activity. It has reduced the crime rate by 40 percent or more in other cities. Despite its proven success elsewhere, Bill White and his police chief refused to adopt this methodology for Houston’s police. You have the power to correct that mistake.

However, like any tool, CompStat is only as good as the people wielding the tool. A number of HPD’s failings can be laid at the feet of its command staff, but we think many of these problems start at the top, with Houston’s mayor. We firmly believe that Mayor Parker’s choice of chief of police will be the most important decision of her tenure. We would suggest that Parker seriously consider bringing former New York and Los Angeles police chief William Bratton (or one of his former command staff) to Houston — if not as police chief, perhaps as a consultant to maximize HPD’s effectiveness.

Bratton and his team turned both New York and Los Angeles around and allowed those cities to bring crime down twice as fast as Houston over the same time period.

Until recently, HPD tracked crime on Excel spreadsheets with mapping following months later, if at all. After long delays, HPD’s Real Time Crime Information Center finally opened at 1200 Travis. While it is a step in the right direction, its efficiency is yet to be fully realized due to the continuing use of ad hoc technology inadequate for the tasks at hand. Let’s get someone in there who can maximize this potentially valuable resource.

The bottom line is, in order to restore our city and its neighborhoods, we must fight crime successfully. And we should not wait around for federal help. The money is already being spent within HPD; we must prioritize how it is spent. Let’s fight crime Bratton-style and resist unreasonable union demands and an entrenched command staff more concerned about maintaining the status quo than doing their jobs — protecting the citizens of Houston.

Wall is a Houston real estate broker specializing in tenant representation. Burton is a mechanical design engineer.

This letter originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle, February 7, 2010.