Part four of a series
GALVESTON — It takes a detailed workload analysis to get there, but the whole question of what’s the best size of a police department staff can be boiled down to two numbers — 60 and 40, several sources said.
Patrol officers on an optimally staffed department spend about 40 percent of their work time responding to calls and about 60 percent of their time on self-initiated activities, which include things such as preventive patrolling, traffic enforcement and community policing efforts.
Based on its own in-house assessment — the Service Standards Index model — Galveston Police Department’s patrol division staffing is less than optimal.
“Our numbers are upside down,” Police Chief Henry Porretto said. “We spend a little more than 60 percent of our time running calls, and a little less than 40 percent on self-initiated field activities.”
Porretto used the SSI assessment in June to underpin a police department request for an increase of about $600,000 to its $16.9 million budget. The new money would be used 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.
But what is the Service Standards Index, where did it come from and is it a valid workload assessment?
Roots of SSI
Former interim City Manager Thomas Muehlenbeck brought the model, which he helped develop, from Plano, where he had been city manager. The model was adapted from a method used by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and was first used in Galveston when department heads were developing proposals for the 2012-2013 fiscal year budget, he said.
“There was concern about the number of officers that had been removed, and we were looking for an analysis that would give the council some information,” Muehlenbeck said.
Muehlenbeck said he wasn’t familiar with the information the department fed into the model, but was confident in SSI’s general validity as a tool for assessing staffing needs.
“It’s very effective,” he said. “It delivers a range. As long as you stay in the top part of that range, you’re all right. But when you get into the bottom of the range, you could be in the beginnings of some problems.”
Widely employed standard
Larry T. Hoover, a professor of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University, studies police staffing issues and is a principal in the firm Justex Systems, which provides consulting services to cities and police departments about such things as staffing and training. Justex recently performed a workload analysis of the Houston Police Department.
Hoover said he had never heard of the SSI model, but asked to list the elements of a valid workload analysis, he listed those used in the SSI. A good analysis must consider the calls for service load, response times to various types of calls, and the time spent on those calls, proactive patrol time, committed patrol time and the community’s demand for visibility — how often residents expect to see a police car in their neighborhoods, he said.
He said the Galveston department’s 60/40 goal was in line with accepted standards.
“That 60/40 split between responding to calls for service and self-initiated activities is a widely employed standard,” Hoover said.
When the ratios get too far out of the 60/40 zone, which can happen when patrol officers are spending most of their time responding to calls for service, response times tend to creep up, Hoover said.
“This tends to run in cycles,” he said. “The department staffs up, things quieten down for awhile and then somebody goes looking for costs to cut. The force gets cut, and response begins to suffer. The department restaffs and gets back down to 60/40, and the response tends to improve.”
The industry standard for response times is five minutes for Priority 1 calls such as life-threatening situations and serious crimes in progress, about 15 minutes for Priority 2 calls and about an hour for Priority 3 calls, Hoover said.
Galveston’s average responses times in 2013 were about 7:30 for Priority 1 calls, about 8:30 for Priority 2 calls and up to several hours for Priority 3 calls, Porretto said.
It’s not unreasonable to build some slack into police staffing, Hoover said.
“The trouble is that calls for police service don’t come in evenly spaced,” he said. “You don’t want to have every unit in your city tied up when a genuine 911 emergency comes in.
“We have no problem paying firefighters to be on emergency standby. We all understand it’s necessary to have a rapid response by trained firefighters. But city administrators have a great deal of difficulty understanding that when it comes to police officers.
“I’m not suggesting that we staff in such a way that police are just sitting around, but you have to have time for emergency response.”
And even nonemergency calls can be a problem if the department is too understaffed.
“Unattended deaths are a good example,” he said. “In most places, the police are supposed to respond to those calls, and they typically are Priority 3 calls. But you have to get an officer over there pretty quickly. No family wants to wait three hours for an officer to show up when grandma has died in the bathtub.”
Both Hoover and Tracy Phillips, senior project specialist with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said the bottom line on staffing was what the community expected from its police department and what it was willing and able to pay for.
“Maybe you don’t respond to all calls,” Phillips said. “Some departments might send a civilian investigator to a burglary call or have residents fill out a report online for a vehicle burglary. If there’s no suspect information, no crime scene, the presence of a police officer may not be that high a priority. It depends on what the community expects and differs for every police department, depending on the management philosophy. ”
Porretto said the expectations were high among Galveston residents.
“Everybody want us to take fingerprints,” for example, he said. “We would like to do that but there’s no way we have time. If we had a civilian crime tech, we could do more of that.”
And there are deeper consequences to having officers running from call to call, Porretto argues. When officers lack the time to perform preventive patrols, interact with people and solve neighborhood problems a gap develops between officers and the people they serve. That’s bad for both officers and residents, he said.
“If people know an officer on the beat they are more inclined to follow his advice, to call him about little things before they turn into bigger things, to give him information about crimes.
“If we don’t build relationships in the community, none of that is going to happen.”
The city council is reviewing budget documents anticipating a 2.5 cent tax rate reduction, achieved in part by cutting more than $200,000 from the police budget.
None of the new police hires was included in those initial budget documents.
Interim City Manager Brian Maxwell is scheduled to present a draft budget to the council Aug. 14. A public hearing on the budget is set for Sept. 4.
About this series
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.
July 13: Among the conventional wisdoms about police staffing is that since Galveston is a tourist town, demand for police service fluctuates sharply, offering an opportunity to hire part-time police officers to augment the force during peak times. But how well do the underlying assumption and proposed solution hold up?
July 29: Galveston spends $346 per resident on police. League City spends $180. But experts say that statistic is a flawed way to measure police staffing.
What do you want? Galveston has no shortage of priority wants and needs. Where does public safety rank among rank-and-file residents?
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.