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.
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.”
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.”
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 email@example.com.