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.