By Mike Morris
HOUSTON — Defending his department's failure to investigate thousands of crimes last year, Police Chief Charles McClelland on Thursday said the understaffed Houston Police Department does not and should not have a goal of aggressively probing every crime reported to it.
"We work violent crimes first. If someone steals your trash can or your lawn mower out of your garage, there are no witnesses, there's no evidence, there's nothing for a detective to follow up on, it's not assigned," McClelland, a 37-year veteran of HPD, told City Council members during a budget hearing. "There has never been a time that I have been employed there that the Houston Police Department has had the capacity to investigate every crime that's been reported to the agency."
It was the chief's first public comment since a city-commissioned study showed the department did not investigate 20,000 crimes with workable leads in 2013. The vast majority of the cases were burglaries and thefts, but also included 3,000 assaults and nearly 3,000 hit-and-runs.
The Thursday meeting, one in a series of departmental budget hearings, remained civil, with council members expressing their support for HPD's needs and few challenging the chief's contention that the department must have more resources for its aging fleet, facilities and to improve recruiting of new cadets.
The chief bristled at the idea that his agency should be expected to throw manpower at all 1.2 million annual calls for service and stressed that his command team knew it had too few officers long before the report was released.
"If you read the work demands analysis, it only recommends 100 additional detectives; the greatest staffing recommendation is for patrol," McClelland said. "A hundred more detectives will not give the capacity to work 20,000 cases. They're very minor crimes. I don't want to dismiss that if someone was a victim of crime, but they are."
McClelland said he has read the 207-page document and has asked his executive team members to do the same. The chiefs will meet to discuss the report soon, he said, then will present staffing recommendations to Mayor Annise Parker.
"It's something we know cannot be resolved in one budget year or two budget years," he said, "but we do have to put a plan in place to address it."
HPD's staffing has been an issue as far back as the 1990s, when former Mayor Bob Lanier ran on a platform of improving infrastructure and hiring more police. More recently, the department's staffing has stagnated. HPD today has fewer officers than it did a decade ago.
In his budget presentation, McClelland said the agency plans to train 140 cadets during the fiscal year that starts July 1, but any staffing gains are likely to be more than offset by attrition; roughly 200 officers retire each year.
HPD is budgeting for 5,305 classified officers in the new fiscal year, a rate of 246 officers per 100,000 people. Comparing Houston to the nation's 10 largest cities that rate of police staffing falls roughly in the middle, well behind Chicago, Philadelphia and New York, but solidly ahead of cities such as San Antonio and San Diego, according to 2012 FBI data.
Within Texas, Houston falls similarly in the middle. Dallas has 283 officers per 100,000 people. The rate in Austin is 204; in San Antonio, it is 166.
Councilman Stephen Costello, who chairs the council's budget committee, questioned whether HPD could more efficiently allocate the officers it has today. Costello noted there are 269 full-time equivalents in McClelland's command staff, some of whom are sworn officers, in addition to civilians.
"One of the recommendations in the report was don't run out right away and add staff, add police officers, until you have a firm handle on the civilian-ization, making sure that you're backfilling jobs we have police officers doing that maybe civilians could do," Costello said. "Have y'all been moving forward with trying to figure out where we can get more police officers out of a desk job and onto the street?"
McClelland said the problem is a funding issue and that the department has lost scores of civilians in recent years.
"Regardless of how that org chart is structured or organized," the chief said, "it's still only 5,300 police officers."
McClelland stressed that recruiting is a struggle for the agency, in part because HPD's starting salary is lower than those of other Texas police agencies. Council recently approved a $5,000 bonus for new cadets.
The last class before the bonus started with 30 applicants, he said, and has dropped to about 25. Another class starting in the coming days -- after the bonus was implemented -- will begin with about 70 cadets, he said.
The chief's view was echoed by Officer Doug Griffith, of the Houston Police Officers' Union.
"A 24-year-old Marine coming here could care less if we have a botanical gardens or Uber or anything else," he said, referring to issues the council has discussed in recent weeks. "What they want is starting salary, and until we get them up to match other cities in this state, we're not going to get them. We need y'alls help. This is a crisis we're going to have to work through."
Council members Ed Gonzalez and Oliver Pennington said they wanted the chief's presentation to better show the gap between what is being funded and HPD's needs.
"We need to understand that we haven't been renewing our fleet quickly enough and our starting salaries aren't high enough and all those range of things," Pennington said.
The chief said he could give no ideal number of officers, and essentially shrugged when asked about the gap between his budget and what an ideal budget would look like.
"The finance department gives us a target number, and we have to fit within that target number," he said. "So that's my budget."
Copyright 2014 the Houston Chronicle
McClatchy-Tribune News Service