Grits disagrees with Council member Jolanda Jones that the only way to pay for police cuts is to rob from other critical departments. Some of those savings could come from reallocating currently misapplied resources at the agency itself with just a few simple policy changes. Grits has argued before, and it's still true, that smart policies can boost police coverage, or at least make up for proposed staffing reductions, even in a bad economy.Houston police Chief Charles McClelland confirmed on Thursday that he has proposed laying off 181 police officers and 445 civilians — including hundreds of jailers — who work for the department as a way of finding $39 million in savings to contend with the city's budget shortfall.
However, McClelland stressed the plan is based on the current budget numbers, and he hopes he won't have to actually lay off police officers when the budgeting process firms up next month.
"It is my goal to keep my entire workforce intact,“ McClelland said. "Clearly, this is going to be one of the most difficult budget years that this department, this city, has ever faced."
McClelland said the budget-cutting numbers change daily but noted that currently he has been asked to reduce the $685 million HPD budget by $39 million. If layoffs are necessary, city employees will receive notices around the middle of next month.
"If I had to implement a plan based on the budget number I have today, that would require me to lay off 181 classified police officers and another 445 civilians," McClelland said. "Do I believe that's going to happen? I don't know."
The chief said to avoid laying off officers he would have to find more than $7 million in additional funds, and $10 million more to avoid pink slips to the civilians. McClelland said any officer layoffs would be accomplished by seniority, a process specified by state law and a city agreement with the police union.
"It's unfortunate, except the problem is the city has not done the best job of spending the money it has," said City Council member Jolanda "Jo" Jones. "The only place to get money to pay for police is other departments. Do people want us to stop picking up the trash or not fix the pipes when they bust. It's tough, but do we want to shut down other stuff?"
First, Houston PD should embrace new discretion granted by the Legislature in 2007 to give citations for low-level misdemeanors where police are not required to make an arrest. Before Austin implemented such a policy, 37% of all arrestees entering jail were there on charges for which they could have received a citation. I haven't seen comparable data recently, but the policy has certainly contributed to Travis County's once-full jail now having extra space, easing pressure for new constructions that local officials once considered inevitable. Plus, arresting for petty misdemeanors takes officers off the street and effectively reduces the number of cops on patrol at any given time.
The second big policy change that would save millions would be to stop wasting officer time on responding to unverified burglar alarms - particularly residential ones. Implement a "verified response" system to stop subsidizing alarm companies and make them respond first instead of constantly sending out officers unnecessarily. False alarms make up 95-99% of all police responses to burglar alarms, with residential customers having a higher false alarm rate than commercial ones. Salt Lake City implemented an excellent verified response system (pdf) after realizing that false alarms made up 12% of local police calls. While I haven't seen data for Houston, at many Texas departments false burglar alarms are the number 1 type of police service call, and in all cities they're in the top three. Eliminating responses to all but verified alarms would be like putting dozens, perhaps hundreds more officers on the street without hiring one new person. A win-win all around.
A third thing Houston PD could do to stop wasting police officers' time on unproductive activities is to either eliminate so-called "consent searches" at traffic stops - where a police officer has no probable cause to search but instead asks the driver's permission - or else require written consent. According to their most recent racial profiling report, Houston PD performed a whopping 11,354 consent searches at traffic stops last year, or about 30% of all traffic-stop searches. When the City of Austin implemented a requirement to obtain written consent for traffic-stop searches, the number of consent searches plummeted by 63% in a single year; last year just 6% of APD searches at traffic stops were consent searches. But the "hit rate" - i.e., the proportion of searches that resulted in contraband - stayed almost exactly the same. Crime rates continued to decline and it didn't affect public safety at all.
Consent searches are by definition fishing expeditions because if an officer had reason to think a crime had been committed, there'd be probable cause. Many of the worst abuses come when the tactic is employed by agencies trolling the highway looking for asset forfeiture income instead of enforcing the traffic laws. Consent searches just aren't a productive way to spend officers' time, and reducing their number eliminates an unnecessary, time consuming officer task that doesn't produce tangible results.
Those aren't the only ways to adjust police policies to save money without robbing other city priorities, but they'd be a good start and would help the county jail crowding problem to boot.