Out of Houston’s 5,300-person police force, 57% live outside of Houston proper. Although common in many urban areas, this can partly be attributed to Houston’s high cost of living and relatively low starting salaries of department cadets. As a result, a new program to change this has been presented to Mayor Annise Parker.
Recent events across the country have put a spotlight on the growing disconnect between local police departments and the residents they serve. It raises the question whether or not communities and police officers would benefit from having an increased number of officers hail from the communities they patrol.
Out of Texas’ five major cities, Houston’s starting salary for police cadets is the lowest while its crime rates are the one of the highest. Without offering a competitive starting salary HPD loses talent to other cities and states, and becomes less of an option for those inside of the city considering private sector jobs are far more lucrative. From February through June, the city is offering a $5,000 hiring incentive for new cadets to encourage more applicants.
As an alternative, Council Member and former police chief C.O. Bradford, has presented a unique type of incentive plan to the mayor. Realizing the benefit of having officers build relationships with the communities they serve, Bradford proposed his citizen-based incentive program. It not only incentivizes applicants from within the community, but also changes the officers’ performance evaluation by adding an additional metric. Since the city incentivizes applicants regardless, Bradford’s plan offers a benefit to the community while still accomplishing the goal of bolstering Houston’s police force.
Bradford’s proposal makes community members an integral part of an officer’s performance evaluation by having a board of citizens evaluate officers. While other factors of the officer’s performance evaluation would still weigh heavily on the final review, the review would be more comprehensive. Bradford’s approach empowers community members by giving them the ability to evaluate the officers that they interact with on a daily basis. The community evaluation would also help determine promotions for officers.
City Hall and the Mayor’s office have acknowledged that many officers avoid ticketing solely so they don’t have to travel back into the city for a court appearance on their day off. Mayor Parker received Council Member Bradford’s proposal a few months ago and said she needed nine months to create a committee to study the idea. A letter sent from Bradford to Parker weeks ago asking for an update on the status of the committee and study has not yet been answered.
This is yet another example of how one of the proposed charter reforms would benefit Houston. The reform to allow council members to place items on the agenda would ensure that proposals from council members be heard, instead of being unilaterally shelved by the mayor. The proposed approach to improving law enforcement is deserving of a debate by the full council. A problem has been identified—it’s time for City Hall to address it. For the time being, that decision lies with Mayor Parker.