Wall: Dear Mayor Whitmire (Seizing the HPD opportunity edition)

Image credit: Jason Lawrence/flickr (CC BY 2.0 Deed)

by Jay Wall

Hello again, Mayor Whitmire!

In my last missive, I talked about re-seizing the initiative on crime and public safety after so many of your first hundred days were consumed by triaging the many problems inherited from the Turner administration.

Chief among the triage (no pun intended), of course, is addressing the years-long practice of HPD coding cases (a quarter-million of them by last count) with a lack-of-manpower code, effectively tossing them into the recycle bin (we aspire to be a green city, after all).

Some are rejoicing (and some lamenting) the sudden retirement of Chief Troy Finner. I am not among either group. After the case-coding problem emerged, and the story about what Finner knew and when continued to evolve, his days became numbered. HPD’s reputation had already been battered. A compromised chief was in no position to restore it.

The most important staffing decision you’ll make: The next chief

I appreciate your boldness in changing course, selecting a new interim chief, and announcing that you won’t be handing off the job search for the next chief to a search firm or committee – you’ll draw on your decades of experience and connections in criminal justice and lead that search yourself.

Bravo! That’s the sort of leadership Houstonians expected on this important issue when they overwhelmingly chose you to be their mayor.

Instead of lamenting the retirement of Finner – whom nearly everyone liked – this is an opportunity for you to put YOUR stamp on the Houston Police Department and our city.

I know you’ll draw on many sources to make your decision because that’s been your modus operandi for decades. I have a suggestion to make in that regard.

Time to shake up the management model at HPD…

Houston needs a proven practitioner of the COMPSTAT or crime-control method of policing. COMPSTAT (or broken-windows or quality-of-life) policing focuses on reducing examples of community disruption and dysfunction in order to reduce crime and improve quality of life for residents. The COMPSTAT approach uses crime data and mapping to identify crime trends and hold precinct commanders accountable. It directs attention and resources to suppressing shootings, robberies, burglaries, larcenies, and auto thefts as soon as patterns appear. Equally important, patrol officers manage street conditions daily through quality-of-life enforcement and other interventions to keep crime in check.

Using a COMPSTAT/broken-windows approach to policing, New York City reduced its murder rate six-fold from the early 1990s to the mid-teens, before it slowly began picking up in 2015 (spoiler: they took the “pedal off the metal” so to speak). In New York, imprisonment in the state fell 25%, largely due to reductions in crime in New York City, where the jail population fell by 45%. Young men received summonses and desk-appearance tickets for quality-of-life misdemeanors, but such early interventions likely kept many of them from more-serious criminal behavior. Bottom line: Far fewer went to jail and prison.

The same results can be achieved in Houston! Your next COMPSTAT-oriented chief will need your support to bring in facilitators to help the department design a re-engineering project and create teams tasked with recommending practicable game-changing reforms within the department’s major functional areas.

To ensure that re-engineering does not degenerate into a top-down management process, the teams should consist of ranking executives, district captains, supervisors, line officers and a few outside experts who will volunteer their time and expertise. Keep it lean, empower them to get it done, and turn them loose.

With buy-in up and down the organization as to the mission, the teams will have tremendous depth and draw upon a wide range of expertise and experience in the selected areas. Every member of every team will be carefully chosen – not because of rank or title but because he or she is an acknowledged expert in his or her area.

…and start working on a broader “attitude adjustment”

There’s no question that some small percentage of cops (or employees in any large organization) are thoroughly lazy, demoralized, and actively seek to do as little as possible – they show up for work, but don’t get actively involved in crime fighting (“conscientious objectors”). Nevertheless, the majority of HPD is “on the job,” performing to the best of their abilities. Most want to be good, assertive cops, but have never truly been led by an effective, COMPSTAT-oriented chief. Too often, mediocre performance is adequate. By using COMPSTAT, by empowering and transforming management through the implementation of accountability systems, and by forging alliances with the best and most effective operational officers, HPD can be transformed into one of the most effective departments in the land.

Of course, HPD can’t do it alone. The Houston Forensic Science Center (HFSC) is Houston’s crime lab. All of our DNA, fingerprint, and firearms evidence goes through it. Though the crime lab (HFSC) is now independent from HPD, its timely investigations and results are critical to addressing our crime problem.  HFSC is understaffed and overworked. Forensic results take eons to process: Fingerprints? 621 days; DNA? 274 days; Firearms/gun casing analysis? 270 days (data via the HFSC website: https://hfsctx.gov/home/). These numbers are TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE!

In the last letter, I talked about other area public safety issues beyond your direct control as mayor, but certainly not beyond your bully pulpit. I won’t repeat those suggestions, but will acknowledge there’s plenty of heavy lifting ahead.

Energizing HPD, forcing city departments to work together, and altering public behavior will take hard work and guts. Resist unreasonable union demands, entrenched command staff more concerned about maintaining the status quo, and your newly vocal “progressive” critics and please continue to direct your energy to the task at hand, making critics into partners if you can but leading boldly if you can’t. I am confident you are well prepared to step up and meet the challenge – nay, opportunity!

J.W. ”Jay” Wall is a real estate broker, specializing in tenant representation, who has a lifelong interest in criminal justice and public safety.