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How a "perfect storm" of problems has shrunk Texas' largest city police forces

Texas' two biggest city police departments are losing officers because of troubled pension funds and low pay. The shrinking ranks have paired with rising violent crime rates, longer call response times and fewer solved crimes.

Dallas police academy recruits line up in formation. They’ll complete a nine-month training course before going out on patrol.

In Houston, police say there are solvable property crime cases with no one to solve them. Dallas officers are taking more time to respond to fewer emergency calls, and both cities are slower to get to non-emergency situations.

Officials blame this on the dwindling number of officers in Texas’ two largest city police departments.

“At some point you get diminished returns, when you’re as lean as we are,” Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said.

Across the country, local departments are griping about officer shortages paired with an uptick in violent crime, often pointing to what police leaders call a growing disinterest in law enforcement work. But Houston and Dallas have other problems. Failing pension plans recently caused experienced cops in both cities to jump ship, and Dallas continues to lose young patrol officers who shift to higher-paying suburban departments.

Since 2011, Dallas’ police force has shrunk by more than 600 people, according to department reports. More than 40 percent of that drop has been since 2016, and officials continue to report large numbers of departures every month. Houston lost hundreds of officers to retirement this year before the department's pension plan changed in July, said Ray Hunt, president of the city’s police union. The diminishing ranks come as the cities' populations continue to grow and violent crime rates creep up from rare lows.

“It’s kind of like the perfect storm,” said Robert Taylor, a criminology professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. “You got failing pension plans, you have low pay, and then you have all sorts of political turmoil doing the job of enforcing in major cities.”

Less draw to the job

Losing officers isn’t the only problem. Police leaders say hiring has gotten hard, too.

Texas Municipal Police Association Executive Director Kevin Lawrence blames what he sees as a lack of interest in law enforcement work on increased community and media scrutiny following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

“Nobody wants to be a cop anymore,” Lawrence said. “You ask current cops, 'Would you encourage your son or your daughter or your grandchild to get into law enforcement right now?' And overwhelmingly the answer is, ‘Absolutely not.’”

Scott Walton, a deputy police chief in Dallas who oversees recruitment, also said hiring has become more difficult in recent years as the profession has lost popularity.

“There have been attacks on police officers that people have to give serious consideration,” Walton said, referring to the 2016 attack that killed five Dallas officers.

Lawrence said a shortage of qualified applicants led Texas cities and suburbs to begin eyeing their neighbors’ employees. Some departments set up programs offering credit for years of prior service to lure experienced officers from other agencies, and recruitment efforts started to focus on these transfers instead of new cadets.

“The best recruiting tool right now is to steal from other agencies,” Lawrence said.

“You ask current cops, 'Would you encourage your son or your daughter or your grandchild to get into law enforcement right now?' And overwhelmingly the answer is, 'Absolutely not.'”

— Kevin Lawrence, Texas Municipal Police Association executive director

Dallas’ drop

A primary reason for Dallas’ shortage has been its inability to keep young officers from transferring to Fort Worth and the surrounding suburbs that started transfer programs in the past couple of years, according to Mike Mata, a patrol sergeant and president of the Dallas Police Association. More than 130 officers who had worked in Dallas for five to 10 years left the department in the city's 2015 and 2016 fiscal years, up from 55 the two previous years, according to a department report.

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“They’re all cherry-picking our best officers,” Mata said. “So these officers are being able to get a huge increase in pay and not have to pull their kids out of school and not have to move. They just drive 20 minutes or 10 minutes to the left or to the right. Why wouldn’t they?”

According to the Dallas Police Department website, the starting base salary for officers is $46,870 — about $10,000 less than what Fort Worth offers and more than $15,000 less than Frisco and Plano.

The city has always paid less than its neighboring agencies, but the department had countered its low pay with an excellent pension plan, Mata said. He himself took a pay cut to come to Dallas from San Antonio because he was told the Dallas pension plan could make him retire a millionaire.

That pension plan lost much of its selling power in recent years, when it became clear that some benefit features and risky investments were causing the fund to run out of money. In the resulting panic, retirement-eligible cops began to pull their money and hang up their uniforms. In the last two fiscal years, more than 330 retirement-eligible officers left the department, almost twice as many as the two previous years.

To salvage the pension fund, the Texas Legislature made changes this year that include raising retirement ages, taking higher cuts from officer’s paychecks and potentially paying out less in retirement.

Officials in the department and City Hall are optimistic the pension fix and recent pay increases will help them come back from their large shortage (the department had about 525 open positions at the beginning of the month). Starting officer base salaries increased by more than $2,000 last year, and the city agreed to a three-year pay raise plan for existing officers last year.

“I think we’ll see normalization next year, then next year adding strength to the department. We’re getting a new chief of police, I’m sure she’ll have some direction to provide us in our hiring efforts,” Deputy Chief Walton said of the September arrival of Ulysha Hall, the first woman to lead the department.

City Council member Adam McGough said the city is spending roughly $90 million over three years on the officer raises, which will bring the city “on par with the general salaries in the area.” But those neighboring agencies are also regularly bumping up salaries.

“The pension is a much bigger thing, and that’s just going to have to heal itself over time ... but they need to fix across-the-board pay,” Mata said. “It’s not just about hiring more, it’s about keeping the ones you have here.”

Houston's hurdles

Like in Dallas, Houston had pension trouble that led the state Legislature to change the system this year, and many older cops clocked out for good to get the better retirement benefits before the changes took effect in July, according to Hunt, the union president.

He said the city lost about 200 more officers over the last year than what is considered normal. But he expects the force to be able to bounce back if Houstonians vote to issue $1 billion in pension obligation bonds this November.

“We are completely different than the situation in Dallas. ... None of those officers, that I’m aware of, left this job voluntarily to take a job at another department because they weren’t getting paid enough,” Hunt said, adding that the city has been able to keep it’s cadet classes filled — a struggle for many others.

But the city still says the department is about 1,000 officers short based on the city's population, meaning the staffing problem didn't arise from pension instability alone. It isn't a problem with hiring or keeping officers, though, Hunt said. The city doesn't have the budget to hire that many officers, he said, which Chief Acevedo blamed on the city's voter-approved cap on property tax revenues.

"The number one deterrent to crime is a visible police presence throughout a city," Acevedo said. "... This lack of resources because of the revenue cap — which I think is the primary culprit in this — makes it really challenging to respond to the demands of our community."

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Dallas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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