Do we need more cops? E-mail
Written by Mark Nichols   

Houston has a problem. The city has a higher rate of violent crime than any other Texas city and ranks among the highest in the nation, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of FBI crime data in the 25 most populous U.S. cities. Making matters worse is the fact that the city also has fewer police officers per capita or per square mile than the national average. In the nearly six years of Mayor Bill White's administration, the number of police officers has remained about the same.

While the staffing numbers have not changed, their  budget for the Houston Police Department budget has increased by more than 40 percent since 2004, from about $480 million to $680 million for fiscal 2010. That increase is due almost entirely to the increasing costs of salaries as well as pension and health care benefits built into police contracts with the city.

The federal government isn't providing stimulus funding for additional police academy classes based on the city's fiscal health and recent declines in Houston's crime rate compared to previous years. According to the FBI overall crime in the city is as low as it has been in decades. However, expected budgetary problems have led to cuts in overtime and plans for only two police academy classes this year, compared to an average of five a year since White took office. Several City Council members and mayoral candidates have said the reduction in overtime spending and fewer recruits in the pipeline do not portend well for the future of public safety in Houston.

"That's a recipe for disaster, and I'm not being overdramatic," City Councilman Mike Sullivan told reporters with the Houston Chronicle. "There's no doubt that there's going to be a spike in crime as a result of this," according to Gary Blankinship, president of the Houston Police Officers Union. "We have to learn to work smarter and try to use technology a little bit more, but some hard decisions may have to be made and some other city budgets may have to be looked at. Tough times cause people to have to make tough decisions."

For his part, Mayor White says drastically increasing police staffing could cause a different kind of problem. The funds needed would require double-digit property tax increases that would price many Houstonians out of their homes. Instead, according to the Mayor, the city has made better use of technology to ensure officers are more productive, building a 24-hour crime analysis center and redeploying more than 300 officers from desk jobs to the streets.

"It's not just a matter of head count, but it's the tools and procedures you give police," he told the Chronicle. Houston Police Chief Harold Hurtt said he asked City Council to drastically increase police staffing several years ago by initiating 10 police academy classes per year. That, he said, would bring the city's staffing levels to about three officers per 1,000 residents, the average among other major U.S. cities. Right now, there are about 2.3 officers per 1,000 Houstonians.

"I think they have given us what they can afford to give us ...," he told the Chronicle. "Public safety is the No. 1 concern of people in order to be successful in a city, whether to have a business, raise a family, or have good employees." Joseph Fenninger, HPD's chief financial officer, said current data indicates that there will be a decline in the number of officers in Houston beginning in 2012.

That year, and those immediately after, HPD will lose about 87 officers a year unless the city's economy turns around.

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