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Budget crimps goals for public safety



Via: The Houston Chronicle

The Chronicle will profile the four major candidates for Houston’s mayoral race — Peter Brown, Gene Locke, Roy Morales and Annise Parker — beginning Monday.

Whoever takes the helm at City Hall will navigate a shoal of public safety hazards, including low morale, a police chief unpopular with the troops and an understaffed police force whose ranks easily could sink in a wave of retirements.

Each of the four leading candidates for mayor have called for increasing public safety by deploying more officers to Houston’s sprawling streets, moving toward community policing and improving the existing information technology so police in patrol cars instantly can tap a variety of crime information.

Individually, they have proposed outsourcing the training of police recruits, building self-contained police stations in high-crime areas and ending the practice of rotating police commanders.

But political observers say none of the four has staked out a public safety position that sets them significantly apart or provided a specific blueprint to address police staffing as city revenues shrink.

“It’s seems to me they have not dramatically sharpened the distance between themselves,” said University of Houston political scientist Richard Murray. “If you have a retiring mayor where 80 percent (of residents) think he did a good job, you’re not going to come in as a candidate of change.”

The candidates’ focus on public safety comes as the city, under a budget approved by Mayor Bill White and the City Council, is cutting back on officer overtime and reducing the number of cadet classes from four to two this fiscal year. Police union officials say the Houston Police Department is short 1,200 officers; police officials say Houston’s 2.3 officers per 100,000 population lags other large cities — including Dallas, Chicago and Los Angeles — with ratios as high as 3-to-1.

“I would think any plan is going to be constrained by budget considerations,” said University of Houston sociology professor Tacho Mendiola. “There’s no question there are lags in the ratio of officers to population size, and it’s been an issue for a number of years. So, while everyone wants to reduce crime, the more important question is how you pay to put more people on the streets.”

Lack of support for chief

Candidates Peter Brown, Roy Morales and Annise Parker each gave Police Chief Harold Hurtt a vote of no confidence, assailing what they called a lack of leadership and citing the perception that the chief, who moved here from Phoenix early in White’s first term, never has become a part of the city.

The Houston Police Officer’s Union has endorsed former city attorney Gene Locke.

“Locke was just the most committed to seeking the funding we need,” said HPOU President Gary Blankinship. “He seems the most creative in finding mechanisms, finding funding from other sources and finding technology to help officers work more effectively.”

City Controller Parker, who has the backing of the smaller Houston Police Patrolman’s Union and the Metro Police Officers union, said HPD recruiters should target well-trained service members leaving the military and consider “outsourcing” training to local colleges.

“We can add additional officers by using those who graduate from Houston Community College with state certification and fast-track them into HPD, just as we do with experienced officers coming from other jurisdictions, along with the cadet classes that are already in the budget,” Parker said.

Parker said she believes the city, which uses 59 cents of every general fund dollar on police and firefighters, spends enough. “I am not going to increase the police department’s budget; we have to do a better job with the dollars flowing into HPD. I will try to restore overtime by re-programming various federal and grant-funded monies,” she said. “We can immediately add officers to the streets through a coordinated response with other law enforcement agencies — that has no budgetary impact.”

Brown, an architect and two-term councilman, wants to build on existing initiatives, such as demolishing abandoned buildings that have become nuisances. He said he helped strengthen an ordinance allowing the city to shutter “hot-sheet” motels used by prostitutes and their customers. He thinks crime can be reduced by building a large transition center for thousands of convicts who arrive in Houston after their release from prison.

“We’ve got to get tougher and smarter about crime, do more with the recourses that we’ve got, and employ some new techniques and strategy of crime prevention and crime fighting and get the crime rate down,” he said. Read more.