Grits on the HPD staffing debate

Grits weighs in on the HPD no-investigations story with some suggestions for how to proceed.

Here’s how to boost the number of police officers available on patrol while freeing up officers to work as detectives in the burglary and other backlogged divisions:

  • Implement verified response for burglar alarm calls, requiring alarm companies to verify a crime was committed before dispatching police. These alarms are 98-99% false, almost never result in arrests, and account for 10-12% of most departments’ patrol calls. This one reform would be the equivalent of increasing patrol staffing by ten percent.
  • Begin to use discretion given police by the Legislature in 2007 to write citations instead of making arrests for driving with a suspended license and possession of marijuana.
  • Follow Texas’ other large cities by issuing paraphernalia citations for crack pipes instead of sending them to the crime lab to scrape traces off for state-jail felony possession prosecution. (See Harris County District Judge Mike McSpadden’s letter to the Legislature urging this reform.)

Those three changes would free up many thousands of police hours without costing the city a dime – certainly enough to allow HPD to adjust staffing levels to create a few dozen new detective slots. Indeed, the last couple of bulleted items would probably save the county money, too.

I agree with what he says, all of which has been said before but bears repeating. I hope everyone who wants more police at least asks about these things. They’re good ideas even if we didn’t have a debate about staffing levels going on.

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3 Responses to Grits on the HPD staffing debate

  1. Steven Houston says:

    Verified response has been suggested many times over the years but it was felt that the city could no longer charge an alarm permit fee if they took that option. Those fees help fund the system and are considerable. The city has instructed their call takers and dispatchers to cancel alarm calls made by alarm companies if no permit exists (except for other government agencies, schools) or to not respond to alarm calls if they exceed a certain number. The net impact is to remove the suggestion as the low lying fruit as most of the benefit has been achieved in this long standing practice.

    Even if HPD were to allow citations to be issued for pot, the officer would still have to write a report, tag the evidence, and handle all other aspects as though it were the higher level charge. I don’t see this changing and frankly, the savings in time is modest as long as all the other aspects of the interaction remain because placing someone in jail does not take all that long.

    The paraphernalia suggestion follows the above path too. Even to make the municipal court case, you will need the pot tested or the pipe tested, the defendant has the same rights in a municipal case for evidence to be tested as the higher charge.

    On a side note based on one of Grit’s commentators suggestions, Houston’s limited traffic enforcement units do go to locations where accidents happen, where they are requested, and where reason merits more often than not. Even if you threw every one of their traffic units into investigations, it would amount to a drop in the bucket, the department actually needing a whole lot more enforcement given what I see driving throughout town.

  2. @Steven Houston, who sounds like the same person commenting on my blog as “Phantom bureaucrat”: Alarm fees are “considerable” but far less than the cost of paying police officers to chase down false alarm calls. The difference between income from alarm fees and actual cost of service for usurping 10-12% of all HPD patrol calls is the dollar amount of taxpayer subsidy/corporate welfare to the alarm companies. Eliminate it and you free up resources for more productive police duties.

    On the pot and paraphernalia charges, the big-time savings comes from avoiding taking the defendant to the jail for booking, which depending on the day of week, time of day, etc., can take an excessively long time in Houston. The new booking center won’t be open for three years.

  3. Steven Houston says:

    GFB, you’ll get no argument from me that the cost is too high for the likelihood of catching a crook. I mentioned it because this suggestion has come up numerous times at city council as well as discussed at great length by FD and PD’s command staffs. City legal believed that unless the fee was dropped, the calls would have to be run and in a timely fashion. The monetary concern (loss of millions of dollars in fees) was secondary to council each time it came up as they demanded these calls be run regardless of cost because people expected it as a core service. While I don’t see it as a corporate subsidy since the people with alarms going off are those living or owning businesses in the city, I’m sure the police would love not having to answer this type of call or many others.

    But with burglaries so frequent and clearance rates so low in the city, I doubt this will change any time soon, as I said, steps were taken to greatly reduce the number of calls of this type being run already when they came from alarm company’s, many such calls having the coding changed when called in by individuals. Surely a proponent of police listening to a community such as yourself would expect police departments to cater to public demands, yes?

    On drug charges, as stated, the biggest savings in time would come from removing the need for a report and tagging evidence at the limited locations provided them. While there are times booking a prisoner can take more than ten minutes, that was addressed by the Captain in charge of their jails as well as an Asian Assistant Chief (name escapes me). The demand that the evidence be immediately deposited in one of a few locations and a report immediately generated take far more time. Those would not change even if the political will to alter how drug offenses were handled were wisely made current.

    I’m already in favor of letting officers write a ticket for the related offenses but I also know that when the joint booking center opens, officers are going to wait a LOT longer than they do now according to those that work for the HCSO. They were crystal clear that city officers were going to have to learn their system which included said officers doing a lot of functions now handled by city civilian clerks during processing.

    Other suggestions for lowering the need for officers included following the path Dallas took years back on stolen cars, the city refusing to accept a stolen car report for 72 hours unless someone personally saw a stranger steal their vehicle. Apparently, friends and family can’t steal a car in Dallas unless the owner goes to the district attorney’s office to file a special kind of report/affidavit, particularly if any form of permission was given but later rescinded.

    Some suggested dropping bike patrol officers and storefronts, cutting personnel from multi-jurisdictional task forces, and again using many more civilians as they did in their hey day. Cutting the number of command staff in half or to a third as well as reducing the number of commands in the city would help too but each of the above has a constituency developed over time to make that tougher. The bottom line is that the city will muddle through as it always has while compensating their employees about a third less than Austin or San Antonio, getting what they pay for in the process.

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