Shoot-Out At The Crime-Stats Corral

Houstonians, rejoice: We just may have a new item to add to the list of things we don’t do as well as other major cities!

Jay Wall, a local real estate broker, and Alan Helfman, VP of Helfman Car Dealerships, took HPD to task today at a special Rotary Club of Houston panel, saying the department has fallen behind when it comes to crime-fighting advances.

Helfman painted a bleak picture of Houston law enforcement, where an understaffed force struggles to keep criminals in check using outdated communication methods and ineffective random patrols – an “unmanned, seemingly rudderless ship.” Wall called for getting more cops on the street through pay increases (funded through a tax increase, if necessary), aggressive recruiting at community colleges and privatization of jails. (HPD has about 2.1 officers for every 1,000 citizens; the national average is 2.8 per 1,000.)

Both previously endorsed, in the Chronicle op-ed pages, a switch to the CompStat system of police work that has apparently helped cities like New York, Los Angeles and Baltimore drastically lower their crime rates.

The management technique calls for electronic tracking of statistical trends in crime hotspots and increased autonomy for the police commanders charged with dealing with specific issues in their areas. The idea is to throw resources at problem zones as early as possible.

During his rebuttal, HPD Executive Assistant Chief of Patrol Operations Michael Thaler insisted a similar system is already in place in Houston. Those nifty laptops in the city’s cruisers work with the department’s new Real-Time Crime Center, which Chief Harold Hurtt has referred to as “CompStat on steroids.” Databases are linked, trouble areas are identified, officers get access to more information than ever before, and like baseball in the late 90s, crime fighting enters a new golden age.

So as one young woman asked during the Q&A after the statements, who the hell should we believe? (Our slightly foul mouth, not hers.)

“I don’t know why [Wall and Helfman] are saying what they’re saying," Thaler later told Hair Balls. "If they were honest with themselves and with the public, we are doing what it is that they’re proposing that we do.” He added that, in general, the crime rate is falling.

Helfman told us that the RTCC isn’t enough: “It’s a real small step. They need to actually bring in some of the virtuosos – the CompStat wizards – and say, ‘Can we help ourselves?’ Why do we keep saying we’re doing everything right?”

If you’re like us, you just can’t wait to see who will earn the right to say, “In your face!” (Or, if we’re lucky, “Boo-yah!”) Here are the FBI’s local crime statistics for 2006 and 2007 – now, just don’t go and get murdered before 2008’s numbers are out and it’s revealed whether those steroids are doing any good.

-- Blake Whitaker

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