By James Pinkerton
HOUSTON — New police cadets in May can begin collecting a $5,000 bonus to join the Houston Police Department, after the City Council on Wednesday approved incentive pay to boost the sagging interest in a police career that is barely keeping up with attrition.
The current cadet class, which began Feb. 3, has 29 men and women recruits in a class that would normally have up to 75, said Doug Griffith, vice-president of the Houston Police Officer's Union. The three yearly cadet classes typically graduate a combined 200 new officers, equal to the number of police officers who retire or resign each year, an HPD spokesman said.
Griffith said Houston is losing ground in an intense competition to find qualified police recruits across Texas, due to lower pay than what is offered by other major cities and significant changes in the police retirement benefits instituted in 2004.
"I believe the bonus is a short-term fix, and that we are going to have to get the salaries up to what they are in other cities," said Griffith. "We are losing people left and right to other agencies."
According to police department websites, HPD's starting pay of $35,164 is the lowest offered to new officers among Texas' five major cities. Austin is tops with $56,397, followed by Fort Worth with $52,176, Dallas with $42,941 and San Antonio with $40,284.
Mayor Annise Parker said the bonus was proposed by Police Chief Charles McClelland, who plans to finance a year's worth of incentive pay -- approximately $350,000 -- out of his existing budget.
"It's particularly challenging to hire the best, with Houston's robust economy and more people with jobs today," McClelland said in a statement he issued thanking Parker and the council for approving the bonus.
The chief also said that HPD pays below market rate for other larger police agencies in Texas, making hiring here a challenge.
He acknowledged that while recruiting is challenging, "HPD has no plans to lower our hiring standards."
The $5,000 bonus will be paid in two installments. A recruit gets $2,500 within 30 days of beginning police academy classes. The second $2,500 payment is due after the recruit completes the academy, passes a Civil Service exam and is licensed by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, according to HPD.
The bonus is the second time that HPD has offered incentive pay to recruits.
In 2008, the City Council approved a $12,000 bonus for recruits. At the time, it was to tackle a staff shortage after 660 members of the force retired, according to HPD.
Currently, more than one-third of the department's 5,300 officers have enough years on the force to retire, according to police union officials.
"We are an aging department with over 1,800 members eligible for retirement," said Griffith, the police union's vice-president. "This causes concern with hiring and retention of new officers, and the inability to hire at the rate the older officers are retiring."
Houston recruiters are up against fierce completion not only from other police departments, but from the levels of compensation offered by the many private companies involved in the petrochemical industry in the region, one expert said.
"It's a question of supply and demand. If supply isn't there the city needs to do something to drive up demand, and raising salaries is one way to do it," said Patrick Jankowski, vice president for research at the Greater Houston Partnership. "It's a very competitive market and the city is having to compete with the private sector, so this is a good start."
City Councilman C.O. Bradford Council, a former police chief, voted for the bonus, and said afterward that the HPD is "woefully understaffed." He said 10 years ago when he was chief, he had 100 more officers on the force and civilian support staff of 2,000; that number today stands at 1,100.
"The population of Houston has increased in the last 10 years and the number of calls for service that HPD receives today has increased, so clearly there is a need for more police officers," the former chief said.
However, Bradford said a signing bonus will not fully address HPD's recruiting woes, which he said also stem from recruits no longer trusting city assurances they will honor the terms of the benefit package.
Council member Ed Gonzalez, a former HPD officer, told council members Houston is competing for qualified workers with the private sector.
"The challenge is with an improved economy there are better jobs out there that pay much better, so many times they are funneled into a different direction because it is a career choice," he said of potential candidates.
Copyright 2014 the Houston Chronicle
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