Part five of a series

GALVESTON — Police Chief Henry Porretto has a dream and a nightmare.

The dream is about Galveston being named among the top-10 safest cities in the country. The nightmare is about the city sliding back into the level of drug-induced crime — everything from gang violence to the pettiest of thefts — that plagued it from the mid-1980s through the late 1990s.

Porretto argues a modest investment in more police officers would allow the department to work more proactively, improve quality of life for residents and improve the city’s reputation in the larger world. He believes earning a place on a safest-cities list would have a tangible return on investment by increasing tourism and economic development and by making more people want to live here.

In June, the police department requested an increase of about $600,000 to its $16.9 million budget to hire eight civilian support employees and four police officers.

Some of the new civilian hires would take over evidence gathering and record-keeping tasks, allowing sworn officers to be shifted back to patrol, Porretto said.

If the request were approved, the department might be able to increase the number of patrol officers by two or three, he said.

Four new officers would allow the department to increase the number of detectives in its narcotics division to seven from three, he said.

The city council is scheduled to vote on the 2014-2015 budget Sept. 18. That budget anticipates a 2 cent tax rate cut, no new money for police department hires and perhaps some cuts to the department’s overtime budget.

Public disorder

The problem now is that the department’s patrol division is understaffed, according to Service Standards Index, a workload analysis developed by the city of Plano and adopted here in 2009. With about 75 primary first responders, the police department is 11 short of the index’s “critical” staffing level, and about 34 short of its “ideal” level, according to the department.

Because of the staffing and the island’s relatively high number of calls for service — 75,423 in 2013, compared to 36,065 in League City, for example — island police officers are unable to routinely do proactive and community policing, Porretto said.

“When we’re slaves to the radio, we’re not able to address the root causes of crime,” Porretto said. “We have a lot of public-order crimes that are not being addressed.”

Public order crimes are seemly minor infractions that don’t pose an immediate threat to public safety or property.

“It’s two guys drinking beer on the corner,” Porretto said. “That’s illegal, and people call us about it, but if the officer is on his way to burglary call, what’s he supposed to do? He’s going to go to the burglary call.

“If people know they can get away with drinking on the corner, they keep doing it. And they think ‘If I can get away with drinking on the corner, I can get away with throwing my empty bottles on the ground, and if I need to urinate, I’ll just do it right here.’

“They may seem like minor things, but they’re the kinds of things that drag a whole neighborhood down.”

Safest cities

But would an investment in more police, and perhaps an organized push to become a “Safest City” have measurable benefit in economic development or in attracting tourists and new residents? Cities on the annual Forbes magazine list offered mixed reviews. Officials with the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, for example, said that city’s frequent appearance on such lists has never come up in their recruiting efforts. On the other hand, New York City tourism officials said an anti-crime push that began in the mid-1990s with the election of Rudolph Giuliani as mayor had paid off. The city made Forbes’ list in 2011 and in 2013 greeted 54.3 million tourists, a record high, up 20 million from 2002. The city expected to set a record at 55 million this year.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” said Caroline Peck, of NYC & Company, the city’s official marketing and tourism organization.

Plano, a city of 275,000 just northeast of Dallas, has been named the safest U.S. city for several years on several lists, including Forbes’. City manager Bruce D. Glasscock, who was in law enforcement for 18 years, six as chief of police in Plano, said that while there are tangible benefits to being a safe city, they are complex and policing is only one part of the equation.

“That in and of itself does not become a tangible economic development benefit; it’s just one of many quality-of-life measures companies look at,” he said. “Public safety is always one of the factors — police, fire and EMS — but also the quality of infrastructure, highway access, schools are consistently one of the things, the quality of labor, responsiveness of the government in general.

“If the city is looking at putting significant investment in the police department and not looking at the whole picture, it would be a misguided investment.”

But it’s also true that lax law enforcement, or even the perception of it, can undermine the quality of life in a city, Glasscock said.

“It comes down to whether people feel safe on their streets and using their parks,” he said.

Plano routinely surveys residents to gauge their priorities and help leaders determine where to focus spending, Glasscock said.  

“There was never a goal to become the safest city,” Glasscock said. “It was to create a safe environment.”

Troubling trends

Galveston, like many other U.S. cities, has seen falling rates for both violent and property crimes for about the past 10 years. But Porretto says his officers already are seeing signs of upticks in the minor crimes that can indicate a more sinister problem ahead.

The city’s violent crime rate peaked at about 2,500 per 100,000 residents in 1994 and has fallen dramatically since, according to the FBI annual Uniform Crime Reports. The state and national averages at the time were about 500 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, a stunning 400 percent difference.

“We had a lot of killings back then,” Porretto said. “We had gangs and fights over dope. People actually lost their lives over drugs.”

The department is concerned about an increasing presence of methamphetamines in the city and the upticks in minor property crimes, which indicate that people are stealing more so they can afford to buy the drugs, he said.  

“People say I’m painting a gloomy picture just so I can get more people,” Porretto said. “That’s not true at all. The trends are there. They are easy to see if you know what to look for.”  

That watershed year of violence in Galveston was preceded by about five years of steadily increasing property crime rates, according to the FBI reports. The property crime rate was just more than 8,000 per 100,000 residents in 1985 and had risen to about 11,000 by 1989, the same year violent crime began its rapid climb to a historical high, according to the FBI reports.

“If we don’t do something to cure the narcotics problem a little better than we can now with four people we are going to have a problem,” Porretto said. “Once we have that problem, if they told me to go and hire 20 people and solve it quickly, I wouldn’t be able to; it would take a year.”

Contact Associate Editor Michael Smith at 409-683-5206 or michael.smith@galvnews.com.

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(20) comments

Jarvis Buckley

The chief knows its coming, he's telling us, take heed.

cheryl mello

One need not look far in Galveston to witness exactly the behaviors Chief Porretto cited as increasingly commonplace. Galveston has far too many areas where a sense of uneasiness and concern over personal safety prevail. God bless our police department for the yeoman's work they do. There are gangs, there is plenty of meth, and there are far too many knuckleheads who don't give a damn about much. Now is the time to face the facts and provide the much needed funding. And yes, being noted as a safe city will have economic benefits.

Mary Branum

Well said!

Dwight Strain

Just make sure you get rid of all the cops with frayed blue jeans.. meth and gangs can wait

cheryl mello

Many when given an inch will take a mile. Nothing wrong with enforcing decorum and the rules.

Don Ciaccio

Chief Porretto desperately needs to be replaced with someone that is a leader. His lack of management skills had shown he is unfit for the job. Spending his time worrying about who is wearing jeans and trying to destroy their career is strong proof he should be removed from his position of authority.

VICK NELSON

We all know the difference in Plano and Galveston. When we decide to promote family and morality then we will see crime drop.

cheryl mello

Sadly, those of us who practice responsibility, live morally, and work hard to nurture values in our children are facing far greater numbers of selfish individuals who seem unable to connect the dots. Nonetheless, we soldier on.

Jarvis Buckley

Bunny I agree with you 100 percent.

Don Ciaccio

I'm not worried about being the safest place in America near as much as driving on streets that are in pathetic shape.

cheryl mello

The condition of the roads won't be high on your priority list if your car is stolen, you are physically assaulted, you have addicts roaming your neighborhood, or your home is robbed to acquire money for drugs. It happens in Galveston most every day. Trauma is a real life changer.

Jarvis Buckley

Unfortunately it is going to get much worse in the coming years, with these beautiful public housing
Facilities being built , that we need so desperatly. What ever happened to the American dream, to
8 hrs pay for 8 hrs work? Why does this island have to rely on immigrant workers, and those that cross the border without permission . We shouldn't have to live in fear. Give the chief the money.
If nothing changes ,send him down the road. End of story.

Tamala Robinson

Jarvo your remarks shows your ignorance of people and your thoughts of certain ethnic groups! I know plenty of people who have come from public housing with degrees, entrepeneurs and blue collar workers. There are bad people even in the nicest neighborhoods! You can't stereotype everyone that is living in public assisted housing. How pathetic! I guess the ex Enron staff who stole employee's money, the now Governer of Texas, the former Governer of Louisiana and his son can be excused for the criminal behavior because they didn't grow up living in public housing?

Steve Fouga

TAMALA, I don't think Jarvo is talking about the good folks that use public housing, just the bad ones. True, there are bad folks everywhere, just not as many as there are in public housing. This is fact, not opinion. Crime follows public housing. I have no complaints about the law-abiding citizens in public housing, just the criminals.

Jarvis Buckley

Thank you Jake,TAMALA just doesn't know me well enough to make those comments, kinda like a
Rattlesnake you step on them and they strike. There are many good folks elders & disabled that live in public housing. Unfortunetly there are many gang members and thugs and welfare beggars that
Live there also, instead of trying to be contributing members of Galveston Island. Turn your hand over
And go to work. We have no problem then.

Jarvis Buckley

By the way TAMALA I worked 14-16 hours a day to send my daughter to college and Law School.
Didn't ask the taxpayers for a dime.

Ron Shelby

This is absolutely not an apples to apples comparison. As a result, indexes don't produce the came conclusions. This is misapplying evaluation research.

Context...Context... Context is Everything. Plano is nothing like Galveston. Its not a tourist attraction (Is anyone heading off on a trip there to see the sights??). Its totally different from Galveston so getting on the safest city list is like getting League City or Clear Lake on that list. Totally different makeup of residents.

Galveston should compare itself to similar coastal tourist destinations.

earl maura

I figure if the 100 year storm doesn't hit within the next 10 years sending man and beast fleeing for their lives turning this place back into a giant sand bar that nature intended, Real estate prices will continue to skyrocket forcing these "mud people" 0ff the island anyway. Unfortunately this mass migration may include everyone else who won't be able to afford to live here.

cheryl mello

The consensus one can draw from this discussion is, as I see it, let's stop the downward spiral here and now. We can let it end here on the discussion page or do what needs to be done, convenient or inconvenient with busy schedules and obligations. Shut down the computer, check out when the Council will meet to discuss or contact your Council member (City of Galveston.com or call City Hall) and get your butt over there to contribute to the really important discussion. The Council meeting which grants or withholds funding to keep the fools at bay. Don't assume someone else cares or will take care of business. Actions, not words.

rah

Per KTRK news and ticket to 7 yr. old: mom should have known about motor vehicles not being allowed on the beach. Officer should have ticketed mom. Kid only knows what mom tells him. Giving a 7 yr old a ticket is senseless.

Mom got the press she wanted, though. I guess she did her best to slam GPD. There are laws for all not just those who live here.

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