Friday, April 22, 2011

Cutting Houston PD budget safely means changing unproductive police polices

With layoffs of so many police and constables around the state, it's high time local law enforcement began changing policies that misallocate scarce police resources away from crime fighting and toward activities aimed more at influencing public opinion than catching criminals. In the Houston Chronicle today, James Pinkerton has a story ("626 could lose their jobs at HPD") on a plan submitted by the Houston police chief to lay off nearly two hundred officers and manymore civilians. His story opens:
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?"
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.

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.


Anonymous said...

As a Houston resident, I read your post as an excellent way to both make these hundreds of cuts in extra officers and then change the policies to allow the reduced staffing to cover the same amount of ground the higher level of staffing did.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

Exactly, Rage, you nailed it. Now, as a Houston resident, go forth and spread the word! :)

Anonymous said...

It seems a little like you're wanting to make the changes and keep the cops.

Believe it or not, I have beat my head against that wall at the highest levels. I'll continue to do so, and I've actually enjotyed this budget crunch from a standpoint of opening the eyes of the tuff-on-crime crowd.

I hate having something in common with those Tea Party assholes, although I like to think that even their broken clocks can be right twice a day.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

Actually, Rage, fwiw I think they can cut the number of cops and make up the difference without reducing overall coverage by making the suggested policy changes.

Anonymous said...


Do you know if there is any data available for agencies who have adopted the misdemeanor release by citation practices as to the % of those issued citations have failed to appear in court as promised when they sign the citation?

I would be curious just from the cost standpoint of having to issue an FTA warrant, arrest, etc.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I haven't seen it, 10:04, but both Austin PD and the Travis County Sheriff have probably been doing this now for long enough to get a sense. Whether or not anyone has compiled the data is another matter: I don't know.

Anonymous said...

Interesting how they are laying off city jailers who cost less both in annual salaries and in long-term benefits (including retirement costs) yet replacing them with expensive police officers who are being pulled from the street. Evidence they aren't yet serious about any budget expenses...unless they simply plan to rehire jailers in the next couple of years when/if budgets improve (cheaper than trying to refill officer vacancies as new hire rookies would have to go to a 6 month academy (at city expense) before being put on the street.

Anonymous said...

without reducing overall coverage by making the suggested policy changes

That's what I was saying, and I get now that you want that too. At first, it sounded like you were finding money in the budget to keep all of the cops that they're proposing to lay off. No big deal.

Also, a year or so ago I saw something about how failures to appear have not substantially increased in areas where cite and summons has been implemented. Wish I knew where the hell it was now, and I don't think it was anecdotal.

11:22, Houston is getting out of the jailing business, for fear that city jails will have to comply with the same standards as county jails and they will not be able to afford it. That is why the City of Houston has been so interested in the county jail and new construction, especially the most recently proposed intake facility. When was the last time you saw an intake facility with several hundred beds? That as to take Houston's misdemeanors, not to help process people in faster.


Anonymous said...

HPD is about as frugal as the Pentagon. They have so many wasteful and useless positions it's not funny.
They want to cut jailers but not high ranking staff positions.
Stop letting officer work those honey hole speed traps and other wasted jobs.
Start fighting crime. HPD investigations are horribly bad and they can't solve a crime unless it falls of their lap.

Anonymous said...

From a cops point of view:
"Speed traps" are generally the result of citizens complaining. We then go to the area, write tickets and hope the show slows people down.
"Citations of petty misdemeanors" depends on what you think is petty. To me ALL theives should go to jail, shoplifters cost all of us lots of money every year.
Now that said, there is waste, just like there is waste in every government, corporation and non-profit group. It should be cut and they should be able to do the job with what they have. Don't cut jailers and pay officers to do their job (paying a dollar to watch a dime).