Thursday, February 16, 2006

Bloggers hyping crime stats should seek real solutions

BlogHouston has been on a kick recently trashing Mayor Bill White for Houston's understaffed police department, but they frequently appear more concerned with attacking a political enemy than fixing problems like police response times. I'm actually not a fan of Bill White, but that doesn't make unfair criticisms justified.

In
this post, Kevin quotes Chief Harold Hurtt spuriously comparing Houston to Chicago, declaring that the "number of officers per square mile in Houston is less than eight, while the country's next biggest city — Chicago — has nearly 60. " Well, yeah, and there's a one-word reason for that: "Sprawl." Heard of it? Chicago is an incredibly dense city, while Houston goes on for miles and miles. In terms of officer to population ratios, which is the more important way to look at police staffing, Houston's ratio looked a little worse after Katrina evacuees tacked on 10% to the city's population, but it's still roughly in line with other Texas cities - around 2 officers per thousand residents. Chicago's ratio is higher, but then they also have higher homicide rates than Houston, and again, they're a denser city with different needs -- how many cops in Houston walk a beat?

In
this item Kevin complains about declining HPD response times, but seems more interested in blaming Mayor White than finding solutions. Here's an easy fix for that I'll bet we won't see the BlogHouston folks trumpeting: Create a "verified response" policy for commercial and residential alarm systems requiring companies like ADT to confirm a crime has been committed before dispatching police to the scene. Right now false alarm rates hover in the 99% range in cities without verified response, wasting tens of thousands of officer hours each year. Stop that wasteful subsidy and it'd be like adding dozens of new cops on the street each shift.

Not to be outdone,
Anne suggests that eliminating bottled water purchases and disallowing city employees from receiving additional training might pay for more police (a notion for which Greg rightly slaps her), but her more serious revenue proposal - linking red light camera revenue to police funding - is an even worse idea. If that were to happen, the moment critics like her and Kevin start bashing the city next time around you'd inevitably see reductions in yellow light times to increase revenue, making everybody less safe at the end of the day. After all, a lot more people get hurt in car accidents than get shot.

It's worth mentioning that
according to the Washington Post, despite a hopefully short term spike in homicides, Houston's overall crime rate actually declined by 2% last year. Moreover, while Houston's homicides increased, they're still just over half the number the city experienced in 1991, when there were 608 homicides compared to around 326 last year (the last '05 total I could find.)

If Houston wants to hire hundreds of new officers, they won't pay for it with cuts in bottled water purchases and it'd be foolish to pay for it with red light camera revenues. That's why God created taxes. Raise them, if you want to. But for heaven's sake then don't whine about it.

3 comments:

Kevin said...

In this item Kevin complains about declining HPD response times, but seems more interested in blaming Mayor White than finding solutions. Here's an easy fix for that I'll bet we won't see the BlogHouston folks trumpeting: Create a "verified response" policy for commercial and residential alarm systems requiring companies like ADT to confirm a crime has been committed before dispatching police to the scene. Right now false alarm rates hover in the 99% range in cities without verified response, wasting tens of thousands of officer hours each year. Stop that wasteful subsidy and it'd be like adding dozens of new cops on the street each shift.

I don't have a problem with that suggestion. Why assume otherwise?

I also don't have a problem with your critique of Chief Hurtt's comparison. Indeed, a commenter made that same point in our forum -- two days ago. I call that and this blogversation. That's the goal -- to promote/provoke a discussion about issues of interest to us.

However, the false-alarm problem isn't a new one, so I don't think anyone could reasonably contend that it has much to do with a recent spike in violent crime, however good an idea it might be to try to reduce false-alarm responses. A reasonable case can be made that the spike has something to do with Katrina refugees or HPD's manpower problem (or a combination). Maybe it's just an anomaly. *shrug* Different people can come to different conclusions. Diversity is beauty.

Mayor White's administration WAS slow to come to grips with HPD's manpower problem, though. If not for KHOU and the most popular talk show host in town (who also spoke of saving money on bottled water this week, so add him to the list of people who need slapdowns) pounding on the matter, I doubt we'd see the positive movement we are finally starting to see. Even though this problem (like so many others in the city) wasn't Bill White's making, his administration was slow to react to it; they are finally taking some positive steps. I'm sorry if my pointing any of that out makes you angry with me.

Bill White is a very effective politician and leader. When he sets his mind to something, he tends to get it done. I certainly hope he has set his mind to solving HPD's manpower problem expeditiously, and since I know that the little blog is read by at least some downtown pols, I suspect we'll continue to encourage our elected officials to keep working on it. Other bloggers and commenters are certainly free to offer different perspectives! We don't all have to think alike, and it doesn't make me angry that we don't. :)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I wish I thought we were seeing "positive movement," Kevin. But as the ridiculous camera proposal shows, what we're seeing is politicians hyping non-solutons to placate the public that won't really help much.

I guess the reason I thought you wouldn't like the verified response idea is that it might actually help the problem, while complaining that we need more spending on officers without raising taxes is just a political jab without really being constructive, IMO. Houston's population increased 10% basically overnight, and violent crime increased 2%, while overall crime went down. Murders are basically at half the level they were 15 years ago when the population was much smaller. You could look at those numbers and think HPD is doing a great job. It's a political decision to conclude otherwise, and to hammer away on the meme while rejecting the only solution that might allow you to hire hundreds more cops - higher taxes - just seems a little disingenuous to me, with all due respect.

Anonymous said...

"a lot more people get hurt in car accidents than get shot."

Come on, you let that pass without a jab at Cheney? You're slipping.