Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Charles McClelland

On county jails and treating mental illness

There’s really only one thing that needs to be said about this op-ed, which was co-written by Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia and HPD Chief Charles McClelland.

Texas ranks 49th in the nation in per capita spending on mental health services. Only 25 percent of children and 18 percent of adults with severe mental illness and in need of services from the public mental health system in Harris County are able to receive them. Now, Texas lawmakers are looking to cut funding to the already overburdened public mental health system by $134 million for 2012-13.

As the heads of the two largest law enforcement agencies in the Houston area, we are extremely concerned that spending significantly less on mental health services for those most in need will result in far greater ramifications in the long term for state finances as well as the quality of life for all Texans. Funding cuts will directly affect public safety if officers are forced to deal with even more mental health crises rather than address other urgent calls for service. Moreover, many individuals with untreated mental illness who lack access to care end up cycling through the criminal justice system at a cost that is significantly higher to taxpayers than that of providing ongoing, community-based treatment and services.

A prime example of cost shifting has occurred within the Harris County Jail, now the largest mental health facility in Texas. The Harris County Jail treats more individuals with mental health issues on a daily basis than our state’s 10 psychiatric hospitals combined. This is especially worrisome given that the United States Department of Justice reports that it costs 60 percent more to incarcerate inmates with serious mental illnesses than it costs to house typical inmates.


Continuing to increase our reliance on emergency responders to deal with the chronic mentally ill strains our already limited resources.

It also continues to criminalize mental illness, something that benefits no one and negatively affects all of us, whether we are the individuals living with a mental illness, their loved ones, or the taxpayers footing the increasing bill to provide expensive and repeated crisis treatment in our local emergency rooms, jails and state prisons.

The significant cuts the Legislature made in 2003 to this same system are very much part of why we find ourselves in such a precarious situation. We hope our legislators keep this in mind as they decide how to address this important public safety issue in the coming months. Spending less in the short run will only lead to higher costs later, not only in money but also in peace of mind.

The only thing that’s lacking in this piece is the co-signature of County Judge Ed Emmett. The truth of the matter is that the Republican Lege and our Governor don’t care what a Democratic Sheriff and a city police chief think. They’re going to make whatever cuts to the budget they see fit to make, and if it has negative effects on someone else, that’s not their problem. There’s at least a chance that they might give a little bit of weight to what a Republican County Judge has to say, however. I don’t expect much – they’re still going to screw us, they just might feel a teensy twinge of regret about it – but it’s all we’ve got.

You really can go broke saving money

The state of Texas has cost itself billions of dollars over the past decade or so by doing things like cutting CHIP and thus losing out on far more federal funds than any savings achieved in the state budget. Harris County is costing itself a bunch of money in deputy overtime because of their current hiring freeze. And the city of Houston is losing revenue in the municipal courts because of a bizarre and unpopular new policy that is keeping police officers out of the courts for traffic cases most of the day. The policy was intended to reduce overtime costs, and you can guess the rest:

While the city has saved a quarter-million dollars on officer overtime in just two months, revenue at municipal court is down $2.3 million in August, September and October 2010 compared to the same three months last year.

Officers say it’s because so many cases are being reset and unresolved that fines are not being paid.

I certainly understand wanting to control overtime costs, but there’s no possible way that this makes sense. In addition to reducing revenues at a time when the city – and HPD – desperately needs them, it greatly inconveniences people who have court dates, and effectively denies them due process. One way or another, the city – and by that I really mean Mayor Parker and HPD Chief McClelland – needs to address this.

HPD braces for cuts

More than $15 million is going to be cut from HPD’s budget, in part to lost red light camera revenue and in part to the overall budget picture.

The equivalent of more than 100 civilian jobs, including temporary workers, will be eliminated over two years through layoffs and attrition. Chief Charles McClelland has moved to cut overtime, delay two cadet classes, institute a hiring freeze for civilians and deploy officers to administrative duties previously completed by civilians.

Several signature programs of former Mayor Bill White, including SafeClear, a towing program used to clear roadways, and mobility response teams, which were deployed to ease traffic congestion, may be canceled or significantly revised, police and city officials said.


Mayor Annise Parker insisted the cuts would not damage crime-fighting efforts.

“None of the cuts are going to impact public safety,” she said. “We are consolidating in every city department. … We are not laying off police officers, we are not laying off firefighters.”

City Councilman Mike Sullivan, who said he opposed more than $2 million in cuts to police overtime funding, disputed that claim.

“When you make cuts in the police budget, in staffing, overtime, investigative resources, it’s going to impact the crime rate,” he said. “It will go up. It’s just statistically a proven fact that when we reduce our resources to the police department, crime goes up.”

I don’t accept claims like that without actually seeing the statistics that are being cited to prove it. There’s no clear correlation between the number of police officers in a city and that city’s murder rate, for instance. Surely the Councilman knows someone who has access to, say, the last ten years’ worth of Houston crime data and HPD budget and personnel data. Throw it into an Excel spreadsheet, produce some charts, and then we can talk. It may well be that he’s correct, or it may be that in times of tight budgets HPD shifts its resources away from things that don’t actually have much effect on the crime rate. Who knows? What I’m saying is that this is all objective and testable, so let’s see some numbers.

And if it turns out that CM Sullivan is absolutely correct and that further cuts to HPD’s budget puts us at risk of a spike in the crime rate, we do always have the option of raising revenue so that we don’t have to force HPD to slash its budget. If maintaining some minimum level of staffing at HPD is such a priority, then shouldn’t we find a way to pay for it? And if we’re not willing to find a way to pay for it, then is it really a priority? I know, I know, everybody’s talking about cuts, and maybe there’s some other expenses that could be cut to make room in the budget for more HPD funding. I’m asking again, what is the minimum level of services we’re willing to accept, and how do we intend to pay for it? For that matter, what level of services do we actually want to have, and how do we intend to pay for that? We need to have that conversation before we can sensibly tackle these problems.

HPD sends “Pay your red light camera ticket or else” letter

With predictable results.

Houston police have notified 79,000 motorists that they cannot renew their vehicle registrations until they pay red light camera fines and penalties, even though Harris County officials repeatedly have said they will not prevent people from registering their vehicles because of the outstanding citations.

Police Chief Charles McClelland denied critics’ charges the Houston Police Department’s collection campaign relies on scare tactics, but he acknowledged HPD has no legal agreement to block registration of Harris County residents who owe red-light camera fines. He said that some of the red light violations were committed by residents in adjacent counties that are enforcing the registration holds.


At a news conference at HPD headquarters Thursday a sample warning letter distributed to reporters featured a warning across the top in large lettering.

“The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles has placed a Hold on the registration renewal of this vehicle,“ the notice states. “Registration of this vehicle cannot be renewed until this past due fine is paid.’

That warning is true in counties where the Commissioners Court has agreed to block registrations or for those who attempt to renew their registration online through the state, but McClelland said it was not incumbent on HPD to inform motorists they still could register their vehicles in Harris County. He noted that tickets have been issued to vehicle owners in Fort Bend, Brazoria, and Montgomery counties.

Apparently, there’s some fine print on the back that says your local county tax assessor “may” refuse to register the vehicle. So it’s misleading and likely to fool people who don’t know that Harris County isn’t cooperating with Houston on this, but not a flat out lie. Not their finest moment, but at least there’s that. As you might imagine, camera opponents don’t much care for this.

City Councilman Mike Sullivan, an outspoken opponent of the cameras, said he found it “troubling” HPD sent out letters “stating a fact that is untrue.” He also questioned the document for having the appearance of being from HPD when it originated in Scotsdale, the home of ATS, the city contractor that installed the cameras at 70 intersections and administers the program.

“There is such a strong effort to collect a fine, that seems to be the primary message and focus of this notice,” Sullivan said. “It’s saying, ‘We’re going to tell you whatever we have to tell you to intimidate you to mail your fine in.’ They’re making their own rules and the public doesn’t know any better.”

With all due respect to CM Sullivan, the police lie to people all the time. It’s a widely accepted tactic for interrogations, with broad latitude being granted to detectives by the Supreme Court. I appreciate the concern – I certainly find a lot of this to be troubling – but if this bothers you, there’s a lot more where that came from.

And again, if the complaint is about the money, I reiterate my issues with that argument. I sympathize with the concerns about deception, but beyond that I find it difficult to feel sorry for the people who got these letters, especially since I know that if they ignore them, nothing will happen to them.

The chiefs talk about Arizona

HPD Chief Charles McClelland was one of several police chiefs to go to Washington and talk with Attorney General Eric Holder about why Arizona’s immigration law would be harmful to them, and why the federal government needs to finish the job of comprehensive immigration reform.

“The federal government should bring clarity to this issue,” McClelland said outside the Justice Department following a one-hour meeting with Holder.

McClelland said the government needs to define the varying roles of federal, state and local police agencies in enforcing federal statutes.

Several of the police chiefs were critical of the Arizona law, which allows police officers to demand from people proof of being in the country legally.

Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villaseñor said officers are bound to enforce the law, but warned that it would have consequences.

Those consequences, the chiefs said, include the possibility that victims and witnesses with questionable immigration status might not come forward to report crimes or cooperate with investigators.

That loss of trust with segments of the community would give criminals more protection from law enforcement, they said.

As I’ve noted before, we’ve already seen what happens when local law enforcement steps in on the immigration question. In Maricopa County, Arizona, home of nativist Sheriff Joe Arpaio, crime is up and response times are down, because the Sheriff’s deputies are too busy rounding up people who may be undocumented immigrants to focus on the rest of their job. We already know what will happen, because it’s already happened. Why would we want to emulate that?

HPD and HFD overtime

As is the case with the Harris County Sheriff’s office, the Houston Police Department and Houston Fire Department spend a lot of money on overtime.

A Houston Chronicle analysis shows that most of the money — $50 million — went to the Houston Police Department, long bedeviled by staffing shortages while trying to cover the nation’s fourth largest city. At the Houston Fire Department, the cost was $17 million, largely for the same reasons.

“We’re going to have to be more efficient,” said newly-installed Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland.

The hefty price tag for the city’s fire and police department overtime will be among those scrutinized when Mayor Annise Parker and her chiefs huddle this year to try to cover an expected $100 million citywide deficit.

“Overtime’s definitely on the table,” Parker said.

As everyone knows, public safety is by far the biggest piece of the city’s budget, and reducing overtime costs is a way to reduce expenditures without having to cut staff. In fact, as we know from the Sheriff’s situation, strategically adding staff, especially civilian staff for administrative positions, would result in a net savings for the city. Everyone is aware of the need to put more police officers on the street, and every candidate talked about that during the 2009 campaign, so I’d expect this to happen.

The Sheriff’s office is also responsible for jailers, and as such one way they can cut operating expenses is to reduce the number of inmates they have to handle. That isn’t as much an issue for HPD, but adopting a policy of issuing citations for certain low level offenses instead of making arrests would be a good idea for them to consider. Doing so allows cops to stay on duty on the streets longer, as they no longer have to take the time to transport offenders to jail and then get themselves back to their beats, and has the ancillary benefit of decreasing the inmate population. It’s a win all around, and it might help avoid ad hoc solutions.

Still looking for a fire chief

We’ve got a new police chief, but Mayor Parker is still looking for a new fire chief.

Parker on Wednesday named Charles A McClelland Jr., a veteran Houston police administrator, the city’s new police chief. She concentrated that search on internal HPD candidates.

But the mayor said she will broaden her search when looking for someone to fill the HFD’s top job.

“I want to make sure, because of problems identified in the Fire Department … that the next fire chief is strong enough to make deep cultural changes, and focus very diligently on making our fire department more diverse, racially, ethnically and in the number of women in the fire department,“ Parker said.


The city will use an independent firm to conduct a nationwide search for the new fire chief. Parker hopes to have a new chief named by early summer.

If an outsider is chosen it would be only the second time in HFD’s 115-year history as a professional fire fighting force.

In late 1984, former Seattle Fire Chief Robert Swartout was selected. He resigned the next year after finding himself in the middle of a heated standoff between then-Mayor Kathy Whitmire and the department.

Not a very auspicious precedent. Seemed like there was a lot of sentiment in favor of keeping Charles McClelland, who was the acting HPD Chief before being officially elevated, in that job. I don’t get the same vibe about acting Fire Chief Rick Flanagan, but that may just be because this search has been lower profile. Anyone out there have a sense for this?

Parker taps McClelland as HPD Chief

No surprise.

Mayor Annise Parker officially named veteran police administrator Charles A. McClelland Houston’s new police chief today, citing his long service and leadership skills.

McClelland, 55, has served as acting chief of the Houston Police Department since the retirement of Chief Harold Hurtt in late December. A key part of Parker’s mayoral campaign last year was a restructuring of policing in Houston under a new chief she pledged to find within the department.

Parker said she personally interviewed every member of HPD’s command staff, the Houston Police Officers Union and “community members,” as well as the four finalists selected by the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum before choosing McClelland. Independently, the forum also recommended him as the best choice, she said.

Calling it her “most critical” appointment, Parker predicted, with 10 of the 14 City Council members standing around her, that McClelland would be confirmed in two weeks and harkened back to some of the highlights of her campaign promises for public safety.

We more or less knew this was coming. The stars definitely seem to have aligned for Chief-to-be McClelland, so hopefully his tenure will be as smooth and uncontroversial as his selection appears to be. Good luck to you, Chief.

Parker to name new HPD Chief tomorrow

From the inbox:

Mayor Parker to Name Her Choice for Police Chief

Who: Mayor Annise Parker
What: Announcement of Mayor Parker’s nomination for Houston Police Chief
When: Wednesday, March 31, immediately following City Council meeting
Where: Proclamation Room, 3rd Floor, Houston City Hall

As you may recall, there were some premature reports last week proclaiming that Parker had tapped interim Chief Charles McClelland as the new boss. They were quickly followed by a release from the Mayor’s office saying she hadn’t named anyone yet and would do so when she was darned good and ready. Now that it’s about to be officially official, anyone want to lay odds on it being someone other than McClelland? Leave a comment if you do.