For as long as I can remember, every candidate for mayor or council in Houston has pledged to increase the number of police and, to a lesser extent, fire fighters. But with the exception of when Bob Lanier increased the number of police in the in early 1990s, it has never happened.
Since 2003, the City has been issuing a quarterly personnel report. Included in the report is the number of employees at the end of the quarter by department. Here is the chart of the number of classified police officers and fire fighters from then through December 2019.
As you can see, the lines are pretty flat. Just looking at the ends of the two lines, we are down by 91 police officers since 2003 and up 491 fire fighters, but there has been a lot of variance between those end points.
Early in Bill White’s administration, when he began talking about the need for pension reform, a number of police officers retired, believing their pensions were at risk if they did not retire before any changes were made. But as those fears proved unfounded, the numbers gradually came back up.
There has been a recent decline of about 250 fire fighters in the wake of the dust-up between Turner and the fire fighter’s union. But that is coming off an all-time high for the department. Anecdotally, I have heard that there were quite a few retirements after the end of year, but we will not have those numbers until the March report comes out.
The numbers are not as bad as they might appear at first blush. Since 2003, the City’s population growth has been very sluggish, increasing on average by less than 1% annually. The 491 additional fire fighters come close to matching the population growth, but the police department has obviously lagged.
But while the headcounts have been level, the two departments’ budgets have not, nearly doubling over the same time period from just over $700 million annually to just under $1.4 billion.
Of course, all of this should beg the question: How many police officers and fire fighters do we really need? And perhaps even more fundamentally, what are the services we expect from our public safety employees? What are the metrics to judge how well the job of public safety is getting done?
I will be looking into those questions in more detail in the coming months. Stay tuned.