Monday, May 09, 2011

Austin will raise taxes to hire more cops, but still won't investigate more burglaries

Should the City of Austin hire 47 new police officers it can't afford when it's short $10 million and nearly 12% of police calls respond to false alarms? Among the Austin City Council and the local media, nobody seems to question such assumptions. But they don't make sense to me.

Austin spends 2/3 of its city budget on public safety (police/fire/EMS), mostly the police department, and in the last decade public safety spending, led by super-generous raises for Austin police, soaked up virtually all additional revenue generated by economic growth. Here's the breakout for how the city general fund is being spent in FY 2011:

For several years now, obligations for pay raises at the Austin Police Department have been a huge driver for local tax increases, to the point where now every city budget plan begins, as the 2012 budget does, assuming that the city will raise its tax rate the maximum allowable amount short of triggering a possible rollback. State troopers would need a 52% pay hike to match Austin PD, who are far and away the highest paid officers in the state and, when adjusted for the regional cost of living, arguably are the highest paid in the nation.

At times, I'm not sure what the high pay is buying us. The 2010 annual performance report (pdf) from the city manager for the Austin Police Department in places reads like something out of a bureaucratic fantasyland. See in particular the "key measures" listed on p. 63 of the pdf, in which we see that both violent and property crime rates per 1,000 residents have increased in the last half-decade, running counter to state and national trends. The final column asks "Goal met?," and for both performance measures the city placed a shiny green check mark. Ditto after data showed a 14% rise in per-capita DWI fatalities last year. APD had inexplicably predicted an even larger increase, despite declining DWI death trends nationally. This is a head-scratcher. If rising per capita crime rates are really APD's goal, maybe they're aiming is too low!

Compounding Grits' frustration with out-sized local police expenditures and below-average outcomes, when the Austin city manager compiled his list of "unmet needs" for the 2012 budget, it included 44 FTEs (full-time equivalent job positions) at the police department, including 18 new 911 call takers, in addition to 47 new officer positions already planned for FY 2012. The city manager says APD needs more resources to reduce clearance rates for serious crimes, particularly burglaries, which are notoriously declining:
APD requests that 8 of the 47 new officer positions for FY 2012 be upgraded to detective to improve caseloads and increase the number of cases solved. The percent of serious Part I Index crimes (homicide, robbery, burglary) that were solved decreased in recent years. The FY 2010 clearance rate was 8% lower than FY 2009 and 10% lower than the average of the last four years (FY 2006 through FY 2009). Austin's clearance rate for Part I crimes in FY 2009 was 13.2% compared to the 18.3% national average.
So the 47 new officer slots don't even implicate efforts to increase burglary clearance rates - presumably most will be patrol-level positions. The department's plan is to fill those 47 slots but to leave extra resources for burglary investigation in the "unmet needs" category. Indeed, a recurring theme throughout city budget documents is that APD needs endessly more staff than it currently has to do its job and any failures or shortcomings may be attributed to lack of more personnel: "Without sufficient staffing levels," says the city in a document titled "Horizon Issues" (large pdf), "crime problems are identified, but very little can be done other than to respond to the problem after it has occurred."

These complaints about unmet staffing needs while expanding the police force strike Grits as odd, since elsewhere cities and counties are cutting their numbers of officers as a result of the budget crunch. Just like the federal government attempts to cut its budget after excluding the military and healthcare - the things it spends the most on - the City of Austin limits its budget frugality to the third of the budget devoted to non-public safety spending, like parks, libraries and health clinics. The police budget is a sacred cow.

Especially in tight budget times, I don't support APD adding 47 new officers until I'm convinced they're not wasting the efforts of those they employ now. Grits has frequently argued the easiest way to free up more officer time would be to implement verified response for burglar alarms. After Grits a couple of weeks ago quoted materials from the Dallas PD calling false burglar alarms "the single greatest waste of law enforcement resources" in America," I was sent the internal document below created by a now-retired APD lieutenant in 2007 promoting the idea for Austin. I'm told it was written for discussion within the department but was never submitted to the city council.

According to that document, "In 2006 the Austin Police Department responded to 42,906 alarm calls.  At least 39,354 of those alarms were burglary alarms.  These calls accounted for 11.7% of calls dispatched to Austin police officers and 5.4% of all incoming calls to the Austin-Travis County 9-1-1 center in 2006.  Approximately 99% of those alarms were false alarms." Out of those nearly 40,000 burglar alarm calls in 2006, Austin officers made a whopping 11 arrests for burglary as a result of alarms, with 7,467 actual burglaries reported that year. Meanwhile, APD clearance rates for burglary (i.e., the proportion solved) trail the national average and have been steadily declining, with more resources focused on reacting to false alarms than investigating the actual crimes. Nobody but the writers of alarm company brochures thinks responding to burglar alarm calls will help solve more burglaries, but APD's proposed 2012 budget hires new patrol officers for that task while leaving as an "unmet need" resources to actually investigate burglaries. How messed up is that?

The cost spent responding to alarms in Austin is half again the revenue generated from fines and fees, according to the report, but on top of that there's the opportunity cost: Officers employed to chase down false burglar alarms aren't available to investigate actual burglaries or other crimes. Switching to verified response would be the equivalent of reducing dispatched calls to police by around 10% or so. With that option available, I don't see the wisdom in hiring 47 new officers just to waste their time tracking down false alarms.

Here's the internal report from APD on verified response from 2007; other than the dated statistics, nothing's changed. The department faces the identical practical and political issues today. And the best, short-term solution is the same as that identified by Lt. Pendergrass in this document: Expanding police coverage not through higher taxes and hiring more officers, but diverting police responses from non-productive false alarms to investigating actual crimes. Just hiring more officers to waste their time on unproductive tasks make little public-safety sense.


Anonymous said...

While I cannot speak for Austin PD or the City of Austin concerning the pay of their officers I can tell you they will not have any problem filling those 40+ new positions. As a State Trooper working every bit of overtime that comes along just to scrape by I am not jealous. Just pointing out a problem of 400+ vacancies and a low applicant pool which has fallen on DPS in the past 2 -3 years. Currently DPS is unable to fill an 18 week academy with more than 50 potential Troopers and is currently only graduating 30 or so. The attrition rate at DPS is 10-15 Officers per month. At the current rate it doesn’t take a genius to see the vacancy problem unfolding.

All of this due to low pay when compared with other large public safety departments in Texas. Troopers are currently 15-20K per year behind DFW, San Antonio and other major departments. No qualified applicant in their right mind would go to work for DPS when they can make more just about anywhere else in the State.

However this could all get worse depending on what happens in the Legislature in these last few weeks of the session. Huge increases in health insurance premiums for both employees and dependents along with cuts to overtime projects could send vacancies through the roof at DPS. This along with increased work load due to border security, capitol security and covering for vacant positions are not helping the matter.

As a regular reader of this blog I am a bit surprised at the lack of coverage concerning the vacancy, employee retention and hiring problems at DPS.

These problems need to be brought to the attention of the public or the State Police force may end up being nothing but a shadow of its former self.

Posted as anonymous for obvious reasons.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

8:35, I've often thought that if I were able to do Grits full time, I would do a lot more DPS coverage. I agree it's a big issue, it's just a question of time and resources.

Anonymous said...

Having been burglarized, I'm particularly interested in the information in Grits for Breakfast. I'm also particularly disgusted by the flier paid for by APA PAC, among others, that clearly indicates that if I don't vote for Randi Shade, my family's safety will be in jeopardy.