More reaction to the HPD no-investigations report

I’m not the only one that wasn’t impressed by Chief McClelland’s response.

[Burglary victim Heather] Heinke’s experience is not unusual in the nation’s fourth-largest city. A recent HPD staffing study says that 15,000 burglaries and thefts, 3,000 hit-and-run crashes and 3,000 assaults were simply set aside last year without a follow-up investigation. Houston police commanders told researchers they didn’t have enough staff to review the cases, even those with promising leads.

“It seems like (crime has) increased, and to (the point of) not being able to leave your home in a peaceful state of mind,” Heinke said. “You kind of feel helpless … you feel you’re out there exposed, like you’re out there on your own.”

The report’s finding that thousands of crimes aren’t being fully investigated, although it may not be unique to Houston as a major city, has angered citizens, civil rights groups and victims and surprised some City Council members. The disclosure came shortly after the Police Department in April disciplined eight homicide detectives for either ignoring or conducting shoddy investigations into nearly two dozen deaths.


The tally of unworked cases came as no surprise to former Houston police investigators, former Police Chief C.O. Bradford and union officials.

They described a daily triage by Houston police lieutenants and sergeants, who review reports of new crimes and determine which have no leads or “solvability factors.” Then, the supervisors assign what they consider the most solvable and egregious crimes to investigators. The others, despite having leads, are simply “suspended” and may be investigated if they are linked to another crime.

Mike Knox, a former gang investigator for the Police Department, said he’s surprised there were only 15,000 burglary and theft cases that were not investigated.

“I’m sure HPD would love to investigate every single case, but we just don’t have the manpower and money to do that. So we go after the ones who are doing the most harm,” Knox said.

Bradford, who resigned as chief in 2003 and now serves as a city councilman, noted there are fewer police on the force today than when he was in command.

“There’s not enough personnel,” he said. “You only have so many investigators in the burglary and theft division.”

The researchers hired to study HPD’s staffing noted that while Houston has a lower staffing ratio than many large city police departments, such data is relevant but not all-telling. Major cities in the Northeast that have urban centers that developed “vertically,” and are denser, have traditionally had higher ratios of police officers. Southwestern cities that have developed horizontally are less dense and tend to have lower ratios.

Houston’s police-to-citizen ratio of 2.3 officers for every 1,000 residents is lower than those of Chicago (4.7), New York City (5.1), Detroit (4.4.) and Washington, D.C. (6.3.).

Rania Mankarious, executive director of Crime Stoppers of Houston, said she is frustrated that more investigators don’t call on the nonprofit agency to help them solve cases. HPD is the agency’s major sponsor, but she said some investigators don’t want to go through the “hassle” of providing information about unsolved cases.

Others are not familiar with the services provided by Crime Stoppers, which have led to the solving of 30,000 felony cases in three decades of operation.

“I’m angry in the sense that we’re a free resource, this is all we do, and we need to be utilized,” Mankarious said, adding that cash rewards paid for information are funded by probation fees.

See here and here for the background. Let’s be clear that since the report talks about the need for more investigators – 27 is the number cited – the officers-to-citizens ratio isn’t particularly useful. Uniformed officers aren’t the one charged with investigating crimes. Obviously, most investigators will start out as uniformed officers, and I’m happy to have a discussion about what needs to be done to promote more investigators to help close that gap. But let’s keep our eye on the ball.

I guess I’m just skeptical about the calls for vastly increasing the size of HPD. I’m going to need some questions answered before I buy into any of that. If crime is declining, as he report states, why hasn’t HPD been able to keep up? How long has this problem of not investigating cases with “workable leads” been going on? Has there ever been a time when that wasn’t a problem? If so, what has changed since then? If not, why have we never talked about it before now? Surely we didn’t need a third party consultant to point that out if it’s always been the case. HPD’s budget has increased considerably in recent years. What is the money being spent on? What assurances do we have that the parallel problems in the homicide division won’t recur? It would be nice if when all this gets to City Council if someone on Council would drop the deference and do their best Jolanda Jones impersonation. Ask questions like a defense attorney. Let’s really understand what’s going on before we start proposing solutions.

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One Response to More reaction to the HPD no-investigations report

  1. Steven Houston says:

    I’ve commented on this issue for years, including a number of comments on this very blog, but here is a quick attempt to answer a few points raised above.
    1) A proper investigation, one that can ultimately lead to prosecution, can take dozens of hours. Unlike television shows written by those who have never served in a law enforcement capacity, no big city police departments throw unlimited resources to solve the latest crime within an hour TV slot. As I read it, the mentioned staffing report cites a need for a small number of additional investigators simply to review the cases coming in, not actually investigating them. Divide those 20k cases up by the 27 more employees cited and tell me you really thought they were to be solving actual crimes… (and hint: unlike the rape kits left untested, this number of cases left un-investigated was not the sum total of years, but simply those coming in during a small period of time).

    2) Contrary to the assertion, patrol officers do solve a lot of cases simply by being out in the field as things happen. Who eventually takes credit for the collar/bust can be an interesting display of politics but many crimes come down to both parties still present at the crime scene which allows the street officer to make an arrest (subject to approval by the ADA working the intake phones). HPD even initiated a group of street officers allowed to delve further into investigating crimes “in the now” to great success with a small number of officers but office politics have kept the unit small since many councilmen demand better response times over real efforts to solve crimes.

    3) A case can have a limited solvability factor like a suspect wearing a white t-shirt and blue jeans, black hair, and Latino features which might help limit the suspects in a crime occurring in River Oaks but does little to narrow down the field in the Gulfton area. Further, while anything at all in the suspect field of a report might come across as a solvability factor for an official report, many victims appear to have superior mental telepathy abilities as they “know” the crime was committed by a certain person yet cannot come up with any reason why (or simply refuse to disclose said reason).

    4) If you want HPD to handle every level of service thrown upon it, you are going to need to triple their staffing. They are not particularly effective as social workers yet many calls for help amount to just that. Others call them because they see ghosts, hear noises in the attic, think a particular man looks suspicious simply because of his race, and a myriad of other things like people calling for rides, civil disputes, or even matters that many major departments stopped investigating years ago like minor fender benders. The idea behind “neighborhood oriented policing” (NOP) requires tremendous amounts of manpower establishing and maintaining community relationships, a large number of local politicians and police command staff expecting such as written in their own documents.

    5) Unlike other major cities, Houston drastically cut civilian support positions some years back to save money, requiring much of the red tape and paperwork to be handled by classified officers at far greater expense. This was because no one was willing to lay off police or firemen, the kiss of death for any statewide run for office. Since term limits were put into effect, most city politicians have felt a greater need to look to their personal future in a higher office; amazing that the biggest and most vocal backers of term limits live in the county but failed to press their program any further. In any case, it makes no sense to stick a uniformed officer in the role of desk clerk for 3x the pay (even if both are vastly underpaid compared to peers in other cities) but the natural result of offering minor rate cuts and kicking debt loads into the future.

    6) Studies by outside firms are used when no one wants to take responsibility for practices established long ago. It also lends credibility to the drive to change something as outside “experts” supposedly know more than those walking the walk (the Dilbert cartoon routinely pokes a lot of holes in this theory for good reason). If some officer bounces from call to call his entire shift five days a week most of the year, he can tell you the same thing for free but no one listens because he has a personal stake in the matter. On any given day in Houston, there are any number of geographic “beats” that do not have a single assigned officer because staffing is so bad, officers from other parts of town are expected to answer calls in them when they get around to it.

    7) The use of organizations such as Crime Stoppers is a great idea except that there are not enough employees to generate the information needed. It’s just fine for Rania to suggest investigators drop everything to provide her group with information but every week sees a big new pile of cases assigned to each investigator that has to be gone over. There is no overtime available to spend a day or two combing cases for those that her group might help with so other than high profile work, it won’t happen unless those investigators are allowed to (and credited for) doing so. Under current staffing, most investigative divisions are like assembly lines and the tremendous responses generated by Crime Stoppers typically involve a huge noise to signal ratio that can make the best of intentions fall far short.

    8) The budget increases of the past ten years are largely attributable to the raises of the late 1990’s that were supposed to bring the department closer to their peers in other major cities. As HPD went on a hiring spree in the early 1990’s, those officers are now hitting their peak earning years, most direct compensation pushed to their later years. They are still woefully underpaid compared to peers in other cities, especially in terms of pensions and salaries, but as in everything else, there is a delay factor at work here. As those officers die off or retire, the total cost of officers will decline since their union sold out newer employees much like their pension system did ten years ago; newer employees getting fewer days off for less total compensation.

    Need more???

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