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Handcuffed chief; Houston Chief struggles with fewer officers, more murders.


July 10, 2006
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Handcuffed chief; Houston Chief struggles with fewer officers, more murders.

Staff

For the Houston Police Department, today's staffing shortage and rise in the number of violent crimes carries a sense of déjà vu reminiscent of a similar period during the late '80s. A short history lesson about that earlier period of turmoil suggests the way to solve the current problem.

Back then, Mayor Kathy Whitmire wrestled with a city budget crisis that forced a temporary cessation of police cadet classes, a cut in police pay and a badly undermanned force that was overwhelmed by a bloody crime wave that peaked at 608 murders in 1990.

Two years later, Whitmire's successor, Bob Lanier, launched an emergency overtime program that put the equivalent of 600 more officers on the street while adding police cadet classes. Not coincidentally, the murder count dipped below 300 in 1995 and did not climb above that level again until last year. This year has seen 201 murders, well above the 161 logged by the same date in 2005.

When Mayor Bill White lured Harold Hurtt from the helm of the technologically advanced and well-staffed Phoenix Police Department in 2004, the hottest issue facing the newcomer was a surge in questionable shootings of unarmed suspects by Houston officers. Hurtt quickly put in place new policies and equipped the force with nonlethal Taser stun guns. The number of such incidents dropped.

Hurtt also improved the force's image with rules banning visible tattoos and nonstandard hairstyles, indicating his willingness to change the department's culture and enforce discipline and professionalism. Those policies also might have helped to reduce the number of officers killed or injured in the line of duty.

Hurtt now confronts a more deadly challenge, a surge in murders partially attributed to the influx of Katrina refugees last summer and a shortage of officers that will take years to remedy.

This personnel crunch didn't have to happen. It was brought on by large numbers of veteran officers retiring to take advantage of larger pensions pegged to a big police pay raise approved under Mayor White's predecessor, Lee Brown, a former HPD chief himself. Chief Hurtt blames "a lack of long-term planning and commitment" that failed to anticipate the loss of large numbers of veteran officers.

Mayor White took office in 2004. Over that year and the next, 740 officers retired, lowering the force from a late '90s peak of 5,400 officers to the current 4,725. As the city grew by more than 200,000 residents in the past year, the ratio of officers to citizens slumped to 2.2 per 1,000 residents, less than half that of New York and Chicago. At more than 700 square miles, Houston is larger and more difficult to patrol, making it even more underpoliced than the figures indicate.

Current crime statistics are more upbeat than the homicide rate would indicate. Other categories of crime have fallen in Houston over the past three years, and the city as a whole is safer. Police response time for a priority one call is 4.9 minutes, within the department goal of under 5 minutes and far better than the 11-minute average during the most severe understaffing in the '80s. The HPD clearance rate so far this year on violent crimes, which include murder, rape, robbery and assault, is 26.4 percent, a slight improvement over the same time in 2005.

But the troubling number of juvenile and gang-related killings over the early summer, including a fatal gang brawl at a Montrose park, have stimulated calls from City Council members and educators for more after-school and summer programs to provide young people positive, structured activities to counter the lure of gangs and drugs.

White and Hurtt have touted the department's Strategic Tactical Operation Program, which floods high-crime areas with intensive enforcement and resulted in 300 arrests last month. One of the department's strongest critics, District C Councilwoman Anne Clutterbuck, credited Hurtt with backing up rhetoric with a substantive commitment of officers on the street. "It shows we're serious," Clutterbuck said. "I'm delighted to see the Police Department putting their resources behind their commitment."

Countering that optimistic view is HPD Homicide Captain Dale Brown, who recently told the Chronicle editorial board that a gang task force and targeted enforcement in high crime areas cannot compensate for insufficient staffing. "While we can put together these directed strategies, and we can have an impact on geographic areas, we have to have the presence of uniformed officers day in and day out to sustain the gains that we achieve."

Mayor White touted a law-and-order budget this year that includes seven additional police cadet classes. Chief Hurtt wanted eight, with 10 to follow next year, but was told the money was not available. Overtime programs have added the equivalent of 150 officers, and the chief hopes the force will recover to a level of 5,000 officers by 2008. Recent Chronicle reporting revealed abuses of that overtime system, with a handful of officers raking in big bucks for daytime court duty.

The administration's staffing projections only return the department to levels it reached a decade ago, while the population to be policed is much greater. Hurtt says his responsibility is to determine police needs, but city policymakers must decide "what level of urgency they should apply to it."

Mayor White contends that today's HPD officer is better educated and more productive: "I want to have a sufficient number of police that are productive, not set a record for the sheer number of police," he said. White also discounts the low ratio of police to citizens, arguing that the quality of police training, supervision and deployment is more important than ratios.

Asked whether he and Hurtt disagree on staffing issues, White responded that he hoped to boost the number of cadet classes, "but I also think it's important that we hold the line on property taxes so we don't give any department carte blanche."

Perhaps so, but having a significant and consistent number of officers on the streets is essential to successful neighborhood policing strategies and crime suppression. A lack of planning by city officials caused the exodus of officers. It will take more money and intensive, farsighted efforts to boost staffing to levels that can ensure public safety in all zones of the city, even the high-crime trouble spots worsened by the influx of Katrina evacuees into violence-ridden apartment complexes.

Chief Hurtt should be applauded for making the best of a bad situation. However, Houston needs to swiftly expand the police force and come up with a way to pay for it. The chief's and the mayor's divergent views of the urgency of increasing the number of HPD officers is not reassuring.

When Mayor White took office, he inherited a staffing problem bequeathed by his predecessor. If he fails to reinforce the Police Department and the murder rate continues to rise, he will soon make that problem his own.

Copyright 2006 The Houston Chronicle Publishing Company
All Rights Reserved

The Houston Chronicle

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