Second in a series
GALVESTON — Among the long-held conventional wisdoms about police department staffing is this: Since Galveston is a tourist town, demand for police service fluctuates sharply — it’s high in the summer and relatively low in the winter.
That assumption implies both a dilemma and, to some, an opportunity for policymakers. The dilemma is knowing how many police officers the city needs. The opportunity is that because Galveston’s population fluctuates in a predictable way, the staffing problem can be solved by hiring police officers off duty from other agencies to augment the local force during peak times.
Those part-time officers wouldn’t fall under the collective bargaining agreement between the city and the police union, proponents argue. They’d be cheaper and could be called in and let go as demand dictated.
But how well does the underlying assumption about service demand hold up, and would the benefits of deploying two classes of police officers outweigh what some say are clear and serious risks?
“It’s just not true,” Police Chief Henry Porretto said about the underlying assumption. “Our calls for service are high all year long.”
A call for service occurs anytime somebody “calls the cops.”
“It’s everything from ‘Somebody stole my bicycle, and I want you to come take a report’ to very serious crimes,” Porretto said. “It’s anything that requires an officer’s attention.”
Island officers responded to 75,423 calls in 2013, according to the department. The number doesn’t include fire and emergency medical calls requiring police assistance for things such as traffic control.
League City police responded to 36,065 calls during the same period, according to the 2014 budget.
Calls to Galveston police peaked in March at 7,499 and hit the annual low of 5,085 in November.
Galveston Police Department is authorized to have 75 patrol officers. League City is authorized to have 80, officer Reagan Pena, department spokeswoman, said.
Those numbers mean that on average, Galveston patrol officers are responding each day to more than twice as many calls for service as their League City colleagues.
The numbers alone don’t tell the whole story, Porretto said. Like all organizations, the police department must work around vacation time, sick leave, the U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act and mandatory training requirements that take officers off the street.
‘From call to call’
The volume of calls for service has the department stretched thin, Porretto argues.
“We just run from call to call,” he said. “We don’t do traffic enforcement. We don’t investigate anything but major crimes.
“Our supervision is thin because we don’t have enough sergeants in the field.”
In June, the 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.
The four new officers would allow the department to increase the number of detectives in its narcotics division to seven from three, he said.
It would be a small step toward rebuilding the department’s investigative operations, which were sharply curtailed when the City Council voted a tax cut during fiscal year 2010-11, he said.
“The result of that was everybody was shifted to patrol,” Porretto said.
The department needed to bolster its narcotics efforts to counter a growing presence of methamphetamine on the island, Porretto said.
“It’s a small step, but it’s a proactive step,” Porretto said. “If you can stop, or at least slow the growth of narcotics, then all the ancillary crimes — the burglaries, the thefts, the robberies — will be reduced.”
There are ways of meeting the demand for law enforcement without increasing the size of the department, however, Elizabeth Beeton said. Beeton, who served on the City Council for six years before leaving because of term limits and making an unsuccessful run for mayor, has long questioned growth in police department spending and advocated for using part-time officers.
“We can’t continue to eat up all of our growing tax increment with operational spending,” she said. “There has to be a balance and using part-time or seasonal help is among the solutions we should consider.”
The part-time officers shouldn’t fall under the city’s collective bargaining agreement, she said.
“The department would need to set standards for experience and training and then begin looking for officers who would like to work here for extra income,” she said.
“We would not have to pay them collective bargaining rates, just market rates.”
The seasonal-help solution has been proposed many times in the past and by many people other than Beeton.
The department was not completely opposed to using officers other than its own full-time staff in some cases, Porretto said. It has, for example, a roster of 17 reserve officers who work for free and would like to have even more. Qualified reserve applicants are few and far between, however, he said.
“Most are retired and a lot them can’t pass our physical fitness test,” Porretto said. “So they can’t be covered by our insurance, and so I can’t use them.”
Meanwhile, routinely using police from other agencies may be more difficult than advocates think, may not offer the savings they envision and comes with a set of downsides, city officials said.
“I don’t believe there are that many officers available on peak weekends to truly supplement,” interim City Manager Brian Maxwell said. “When Galveston is jumping, so is Bolivar and the bay front.”
Off-duty officers available in the area already were working all sorts of lucrative side jobs on the island, he said.
“I wonder how much we would truly save if we had to match the hourly rate they get for extra jobs,” Maxwell said.
Using part-time officers who are primarily employed elsewhere also presents managerial problems, Porretto said.
“You’ve got no control over an officer, no way to discipline him, except to fire him,” Porretto said. That lack of control would put the city at a greater risk of liability for police misconduct complaints.
“You just can’t run a professional organization like a lemonade stand,” he said.
Beeton, however, said she thought the increased risk argument was unfounded.
“In truth, there is no liability,” she said. “Cities are essentially immune from liability for the actions of police officers.”
But attorney William S. Helfand of the Houston law firm Chamberlain Hrdlicka said the risk was real.
“I will tell you this, nobody, except maybe the attorney general, represents more law enforcement in Texas than this firm, and I have never heard of a department hiring part-time law enforcement,” Helfand said.
“I can see how that would create significant liability.”
Beeton’s assessment of municipal immunity was correct, but only for general tort claims, such as negligence, filed in state courts, Helfand said. The potential liability was in civil rights claims.
“There is absolutely no such thing as government immunity for claims under the Civil Rights Act,” Helfand, who has represented Galveston Police Department for 20 years, said. “There is great potential liability for law enforcement misconduct if it’s proven that it was from a city policy governing hiring, training or supervision of officers.”
Training and supervision
The seasonal-help idea has implications for at least two of those three — training and supervision.
“If you get a map, stick a pin in Houston and draw a 300-mile circle around it, Houston police department is going to be the best in that circle, probably in the state,” Helfand said. “But Galveston Police Department is a close second.”
Many law enforcement agencies will put officers to work once they have completed 769 state-mandated training hours.
But Galveston requires successful completion of another 240 hours of state approved in-house training before an officer can even begin the department’s Field Training Program, Porretto said. That program lasts about five months and must be successfully completed before prospective officers are allowed to work alone, he said.
“Galveston is a Class-A department in terms of hiring standards, training standards, professionalism and discipline,” Helfand said. “Why would you want to open a backdoor for officers coming from C- or D-level law enforcement agencies?”
Helfand said he thought using part-time officers would make it especially hard to keep “bad cops” off Galveston’s streets.
“What’s the police chief supposed to do if he thinks an officer got too rough making an arrest?” Helfland said. “Normally he might say, ‘I’m giving you five days off without pay to think about this.’ But if the officer doesn’t really even work for you ... You and I don’t want cops working for our cities that say, ‘I don’t care what they do to me.’
“If any chief in Texas called me and said, ‘I’m thinking about bringing officers in on an ad hoc basis,’ I would tell him not do that.
“I’m not even sure the civil service rules would allow it and, if they did, I would be very worried about doing it. I think it would be a major mistake.”
Contact Associate Editor Michael A. Smith at 409-683-5206 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
At a glance
Complaints against Galveston Police Officers are declining, according to Chief Henry Porretto.
- 2011 — 129
- 2012 — 55
- 2013 — 28
What you missed
June 29: The issue of police department staffing contains important civic questions about whether the city is doing right by its residents, its police employees, its other employees and its own future when it comes to public safety spending.
What do you want? Galveston has no shortage of priority wants and needs. Where does public safety rank among rank-and-file residents?
SSI up close. GPD leaders say the Service Standard Index shows the department’s staffing is less than ideal. What is the SSI and what does it show?
The police budget up close. How does Galveston’s public safety spending compare to other cities, plus some interesting footprints on GPD’s budget.
Costs and benefits. Policing is expensive, but can effective public safety efforts save residents money and perhaps drive revenue?
These and more, only in The Daily News.