We need more context to the HPD no-investigations issue

Regular commenter Steven Houston left this feedback on my “More reaction to the HPD no-investigations report” post. It raises some good points and helped me focus my thinking on a couple of things, so I wanted to reproduce it and react to it here.

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???

I greatly appreciate the feedback. There are two things I want to focus on here. One is the “crimes with workable leads that were not investigated” number that has gotten so much attention. Obviously, even crimes with workable leads require time and resources to pursue, and in the absence of sufficient amounts of one or the other, some investigations will get prioritized over others. I don’t think any reasonable person will have trouble grasping that or coming to terms with it. The real problem here is that we have a number – “20,000 burglary, theft, assault and hit-and-run cases with workable leads [that] were not investigated in 2013” – that currently exists in a vacuum. Have we always had this number of workable but uninvestigated crimes? What was that number in 2012, 2011, and so on, back to let’s say 2003? Has it gone up, gone down, or stayed about the same? Even that isn’t sufficient, since we know that population has increased and crime overall has decreased. What’s the ratio of workable but uninvestigated crimes to population and to the number of those crimes committed? Has that gone up, gone down, or stayed the same?

If there is some background level of workable but uninvestigated crimes in Houston and we’ve always lived with it – even if we perhaps weren’t fully aware of it – then that changes the nature of this issue. But even if we find that this background level has stayed the same or gone down in recent years, that still doesn’t tell us enough. Do other cities of comparable size to Houston have the same problem? If we find that our level is significantly higher than in other cities, then even if our level has been coming down, there’s still a problem and we need to figure out how to do better. Whether that means more cops, better management, better investigative procedures, something else, or some combination is what we’ll need to decide.

Now it may be that we won’t have accurate data for this. I have no idea if “workable but uninvestigated crimes” is a thing that police departments routinely track. It may be that the only reason we know that number for this year is because there was a study going on. If we don’t have solid data, we’ll have to make our best guess based on data we do have available to us. The bottom line is that I think we can all agree that police departments would ideally investigate all of the crimes for which they have some information on which to go. Is the fact that this did not happen in Houston in 2013 “normal” based on our history and the experiences of similar cities, or not? If it is, then we need to accept that, and if we want to change that we’ll need to accept that it will cost some money. If it’s not, then we need to understand why. But we can’t do either of these until we know if it’s “normal” or not. That’s the real question we need to answer about those “workable but uninvestigated crimes”.

The other item I want to focus on is one for which there had better be accurate data, and that has to do with payroll and the increasing size of the HPD budget. I have no doubt, as Steven asserts, that some of the increase in HPD’s budget comes from the raises and hirings of the 1990s. Surely we can do better than saying it’s “largely attributable” to those factors, however. How much of it is attributable to that? We should absolutely have this data available going back ten years or more, so let’s see it. To whatever extent that it’s true, we need to accept that and deal with it. To whatever extent that it’s not, we need to understand what the other factors are, and deal with them. This should be easy enough for an HPD budget analyst to produce – maybe they can have it ready for when Chief McClelland makes his staffing recommendations to Mayor Parker. I don’t think that’s asking for too much.

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