March 12, 2024

HPD Not Investigating Crimes is No Surprise

HPD Not Investigating Crimes is No Surprise

I am sure you have seen the recent media coverage of a scandal that has broken, regarding the Houston Police Department routinely dropping the investigation of crimes by using a code indicating the case was being dropped for a lack of manpower. The fact that HPD was not investigating thousands of crimes should have been a surprise to absolutely no one.

In this Houston Chronicle column in 2008, I wrote about how awful HPD’s clearance rates1 were. There has been no improvement since 2008. Here are the latest numbers for HPD from the Texas Department of Public Safety:2

To be fair to HPD, the clearance rates are shockingly low for just about all law enforcement agencies. Here are the statewide averages and the clearance rates for the Harris County Sheriff’s Department.

Law enforcement predictably responds to criticism of their embarrassingly low clearance rates by complaining that it needs more resources and personnel. There is undoubtedly some validity to their complaint. But raising the clearance rate will require more than just throwing more money at law enforcement agencies.

Since I wrote my 2008 column, HPD’s budget has increased by 73% ($600MM→$1BB). That is about 20% higher than inflation. That could be explained had the department expanded to match Houston’s population growth during that time, but rather its personnel has slightly declined (6,375→6,254).6

Some of you may recall that in 2009, Houstonians voted to allow the City to raise property taxes above the 2003 referendum cap by $90 million. However, that increase did not result in any increase in personnel.

I agree with law enforcement that if we want to significantly move the needle on the clearance rate will take more resources. But that does not mean just blindly adding more “boots on the ground.” We will have to be much smarter about how we approach the clearance rate problem.

First, we must devote more resources to forensics. While there have been some high-profile scandals about DNA tests being abused, the reality is that we have more forensics tools to solve crimes today than any time in history. But the backlogs at the Houston Forensic Science Center (HFSC) are completely unacceptable. According to its website, the average time to process a rape kit is 173 days. This is a total failure of our City to seek justice for rape victims and almost certainly contributes to HPD’s abysmal 19% clearance rate for rapes, which is a disgrace. The backlog for firearm examination is a jaw-dropping 307 days.

Second, we must do more to prioritize investigation rather than patrol. I know that seeing a patrol car rolling through a neighborhood makes people feel safer, but actually taking dangerous criminals off the street will actually make them safer.

In this year’s budget, about 22% of HPD’s headcount (1,352) is assigned to investigation. That percentage has been gradually increasing in recent years but I would argue it has not increased nearly enough. There are a little over double that number assigned to patrol (2,874). About a third of the department’s personnel are assigned to support, administrative, airport security, and other miscellaneous areas. I think the department should take a hard look at what support and administrative services could be outsourced or handled by civilian employees to increase the number of investigators.

Another idea I heard from one retired officer is to bring back retired detectives to work on cases on a contract basis. I am sure a detailed review of the department’s operations would discover other ways to increase our investigative efforts. A better use of technology is likely one.

But if we want to solve more crimes, it must be made a priority. When I was running companies, one of my mantra’s was, “if you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it.” So, clearance rates should be reported by HPD on a monthly basis.  And we need to start paying attention to the clearance rates. The media needs to start paying attention to the clearance rates. When is the last time you heard the media report how awful the clearance rates are? I suspect never.

But most of all, City Council needs to start paying attention to the clearance rates and demanding answers from the Department as to why the rates are so low. The upcoming budget hearings would be an excellent time to do so.

Until we, as a community, demand better performance from all of our law enforcement agencies at solving crimes, the vast majority of victims will continue to be denied justice for the crimes committed against them. That should be on all of our consciences.


Note 1 – The clearance rate is a fraction in which the denominator is the number of a particular crime committed over a given period of time, say a calendar year, and the numerator is the number of cases cleared. A case is typically cleared by the arrest of the person who law enforcement believes has committed the crime. There are a few other ways a case can be cleared. For example, the law enforcement agency may determine that the report was false and no crime was actually committed. There has been some criticism of the use of the clearance rate as a metric primarily because there are some timing issues that can affect the rate. However, it is the best metric we currently have to judge how well a law enforcement agency is “solving” the crimes reported to it.

Note 2 – Last year, DPS began publishing some of the most comprehensive and current crime data in the country. This is the website where you can find this data. The report I am using for this post is the “index crimes report” which only includes the more serious crimes. Non-index crimes that are not included are offenses such as drug crimes, simple assault, violations of gun laws, and vandalism.

Note 3 – Aggravated assault is one in which a dangerous weapon is used or that results in a serious bodily injury.

Note 4 – Larceny is any kind of theft that does not include the use of force, fraud or entering a residence without permission.

Note 5 – Auto theft only includes the theft of a vehicle. Thefts from a vehicle are included in larceny.

Note 6 - Between 2008 and today, there have been some reorganizations that make these comparisons not exactly apples-to-apples, such as the removal of the forensic lab from HPD in 2012 and the merger of the City jail with Harris County.

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