HOUSTON, TX The Houston Police Department hopes a new union contract that targets raises primarily to younger officers will ward off recruiting struggles that have forced it to offer bonuses to cadets.
The agreement, which Mayor Annise Parker and Houston Police Officers Union president Ray Hunt announced Monday, is aimed at helping HPD compete with peer agencies.
“The fact that we’ve been having to pay hiring bonuses as the economy picked up means that some folks were making economic decisions,” Parker said. “We need to make sure we’re competitive across all ranks, and we need to focus on those, particularly, entry-level officers, to make sure that we have a continuing influx of new talent into the Houston Police Department.”
The deal would give the department an across-the-board 4 percent raise this year, at a cost to the city of about $13 million. That would be followed by two years of varied raises, intended to bring the various ranks in line with peer agencies, at an average cost of $16 million per year. Most notably, starting this June, probationary officers would get $42,000, up from $35,160 today, a bill of about $849,000 in the next fiscal year.
In 2018, the last year of the contract, all police officers would get a flat 3.5 percent raise, at a cost of $12 million. Union members will vote through Friday, and, if they approve the deal, City Council will consider it Feb. 18.
Arguably the department’s largest challenge, as Police Chief Charles McClelland, Hunt and others highlighted following the release of a report on HPD’s operations last year, is its staffing. McClelland has outlined a $100 million proposal to add officers to divisions in which thousands of crimes are not investigated and to bolster traffic enforcement as car crashes rise citywide.
Whether Parker plans to fund that growth plan in the face of a $63 million budget deficit for the July 1 fiscal year isn’t clear, but if so, that would appear in her coming budget rather than the union contract, so the issue wasn’t discussed Monday.
Still, Parker said ensuring strong recruiting classes is the only way to keep up with attrition of about 200 officers a year while also enabling the department, over time, to grow.
“This mayor has said over and over how much she appreciates the police department. I believe this contract shows that,” Hunt said. “It’s not only fair to the men and women of the Houston Police Department who are keeping this city safe on a daily basis, but it’s also fair to the taxpayers who are going to be paying our salaries.”
The department has confronted recruiting challenges off and on for more than a decade.
In 2004, cadet classes were suspended because of budget constraints, and the city offered two incentives to boost recruiting under former Mayor Bill White, one to lure experienced officers and another for new cadets.
From the end of 2011 through early 2014, in seven classes the academy averaged 67 graduates out of a capacity of 75 cadets per class. The cadet class that started in February 2014, however, graduated just 28 cadets, prompting City Council the next month to institute a $5,000 bonus program that will run until the new contract is in place; the three classes since all have graduated or started with at least 63 cadets.
Recruitment issues were a key point for union leaders entering contract talks, and a December compensation study showed their concerns were backed by numbers. The Segal Waters Consulting report comparing police salaries at Harris County and Metro as well as in Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth and San Antonio showed Houston’s pay ranges were below average “in all ranks.” The gaps were particularly pronounced for less-experienced officers, in both base pay and total compensation, which accounts for health and retirement benefits.
“If we want to retain and attract the best and the brightest, which we do, then obviously we have to make sure we’re paying market rate,” said Councilman Ed Gonzalez, a former HPD sergeant who chairs the council’s public safety committee.
Gonzalez, along with Parker and Hunt, also highlighted proposed changes in the way officers are promoted that are expected to encourage more diversity in higher ranks by lessening the emphasis on a written examination and increasing the weight given to an assessment process that mimics on-the-job management challenges.
A Houston Chronicle report last year showed that white HPD officers hold 60 percent of all sergeant, lieutenant, captain and chief posts, which leaves every other ethnic group, most notably Latinos, underrepresented compared to the city at large.
“How can we make sure those achieving higher ranks reflect the diversity of the city? Anything that makes it a more fair system where everyone has a chance to succeed, that’s a positive thing,” Gonzalez said.
An incentive aimed at keeping seasoned patrol officers in their roles, which ranges from $600 up to $1,800 depending on the officer’s experience, would be retained in the contract, and would be expanded to the department’s mental health and vehicular crimes divisions. A similar incentive to keep investigators in the field rather than seeing them move behind a desk also would be added in the deal.
“In any organization, whether it be the private sector the public sector, you’ve got individuals who do not want to continue doing the boots-on-the-ground work their entire career; they want to move into management positions,” Hunt said. “They’re not having to be the person on call during the holidays. We want these people to stay in these investigative roles, as well as the patrol officers who are actually running the calls.”