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Nearly Everyone Agrees Dallas Needs More Cops. How Many Is Enough?

Repeat the words enough times and the message becomes fact: Dallas needs more cops. Ask the mayor. “Dallas needs more cops.” Ask a City Council member. “Dallas needs more cops.” Ask the cop unions. “Dallas definitely needs more cops.” Ask Dallas’ only daily newspaper. “We’re scared, so Dallas needs more cops.”

That Dallas needs to add at least 500 officers as quickly as possible is one of those things the city just believes — same as Jerry Jones needs to fire himself as Cowboys general manager, potholes will never be fixed and paying $18 for a hamburger is reasonable. So, it’s up to the powers that be to either hire them even as Dallas struggles to retain the officers it already has.

Listen to the urgency from those who say the Dallas Police Department faces a staffing crisis, and you might think the city has become a hellscape, a place where the thin blue line is the only thing standing between serene afternoons at Klyde Warren Park and anarchy. We've returned to the '80s, in mindset if not reality.

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Even if Dallas' streets aren't on the verge of becoming a setting from The Purge, and violent crime statistics suggest they aren't, our leaders have decided: Dallas needs more cops. Even it that's true, it raises thorny questions: How many do we need, exactly, and how on earth are we going to find them?

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For Mike Mata, president of the Dallas Police Association, the answer to "How many?" is easy.

“The acceptable standard throughout the country is three [officers per thousand],” Mata says.

Dallas’ population is about 1.341 million, the Census Bureau estimates. The Dallas Police Department employs 3,014 officers, according to numbers released by DPD recently, making the staffing ratio about 2.25 per thousand.

If Mata had his way, Dallas would be paying more than 4,000 officers.

Dallas’ police resources are already stretched, Mata says, pointing to recent increases in nonviolent crimes like burglaries and car thefts. Complaints have come from Dallas City Council member and mayoral candidate Scott Griggs and others about how long officers take to answer non-emergency calls. Providing residents with the level of police attention they expect is simply a matter of ratcheting up that ratio, the argument goes.

“We have officers that are overworked," Mata says. "We have officers that are running from call to call. Are they really giving the citizen what they expect? The customer service that they expect? No, we’re not,” Mata says. “I think the citizen, when they call 911 and they hang up the phone, they expect that an officer is going to be at their house as quickly as possible. That’s not what’s happening. A shooting, a cutting, we get there as fast as we can, but those quality-of-life calls — somebody steals your car, somebody breaks into your house — that could be anywhere from 20 [minutes] to 40 to an hour or an hour and a half.”

The department's most recent statistics show officers respond to top-priority calls for violent crimes in about eight minutes, in line with department goals. People making "Priority 2" calls, which include robberies and assaults, waited an average of 22 minutes for an officer to respond last year, 10 minutes more than the department's goal of 12 minutes. Police took more than an hour to respond to Priority 3 calls for things like recent burglaries and missing persons, more than twice as long as the goal of 30 minutes.

Despite the long waits for some, stats compiled by Governing magazine in 2018 show that Dallas’ staffing levels aren’t out of line with other cities its size, either in Texas or around the country. The national median police staffing level for cities with populations over 500,000 is about 2.1 per 1,000 residents. Houston has 2.22 officers per 1,000 residents; Austin has 1.89; and San Antonio has about 1.4. Mata’s 3-per-1,000 figure takes DPD’s highest-ever staffing level — the department grew to close to 3,800 officers before a hiring freeze in fiscal year 2010-2011 — and sprinkles in a couple of hundred extra officers to account for population growth, even though Dallas' population has grown only by about 150,000 since 2010. That might suggest Dallas has plenty of cops, but looking at staffing in other cities is a poor way to determine how big a police force should be, says Jeremy Wilson, a criminology professor and expert in police staffing at Michigan State University.

“Often, what’s done is a kind of shorthand that seems to makes sense intuitively. An agency will, for example, look to see what another community is doing that has a similar size, neighboring communities and what have you, kind of looking for a benchmark,” Wilson says. “The challenge with that is that doesn’t take into account the features and characteristics of the community, the level and quality of police service, what police are doing and particular challenges.”

With help from police consultant Alexander Weiss, Wilson developed a method endorsed by the U.S. Department of Justice for researching police staffing.

“This is an issue that seems simple but is actually very complicated when you try to think through it,” Wilson says. “What my colleague Alex Weiss and I argue for is an approach that’s based on two factors: One is the actual workload of a community — this would be like the calls for service — and the other major component is performance objectives, things like discretionary activity, like how much time does the agency or community want police officers spending on things like proactive policing and other things that are at their discretion. You put those two in a model ... and it will tell you, probably most accurately for patrol, how many officers you need.”

Even in cases in which cities don’t tie themselves to what other communities are doing, they can become bound to past staffing levels, Wilson says. City leaders might assume that if police aren’t hired to the level authorized by the budget — Dallas' City Council authorized DPD to have 3,613 officers — the department is considered understaffed and overworked, though that isn’t necessarily the case.

“Often that kind of gets in the psyche, particularly if it’s reiterated by senior staff and others, and it becomes a kind of mentality and people feed into it,” Wilson says. “I always say go back to the data and the performance objectives.”

The best way for cities to determine their staffing needs, say Wilson and James McCabe, a 21-year New York Police Department veteran and criminal justice professor at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, is to look at how officers can best fulfill the needs of the city and figure out where the holes are. Blanket pronouncements about the number of officers needed usually aren’t correct, McCabe says.

“You look at the West Coast, and the West Coast has a very low officer-to-population ratio, and in East Coast departments it’s very high. They all have different needs,” McCabe says. “In Dallas, you might need more officers. There’s a lot of things going on. It’s a big city. Not just patrol coverage, but there are a lot of moving parts there. Those ratios are not good [for determining staff levels] as far as I’m concerned.”

Police associations, mayoral candidates and residents must confront another fact as they call for more police: While a small correlation might exist between the size of a force and number of crimes, there is no proof that the absence or presence of police causes or prevents crime.

“You have a reduction of personnel [in Dallas], but you don’t have a matching increase in violent crime,” McCabe says. “I guarantee you, if you added the [officers who left the department] back and got back up to 3,600 officers, you wouldn’t have, necessarily, a significant decrease in crime. ... It’s very difficult to ascribe causation to changes in personnel and changes in crime. They may or may not be correlated, but it’s almost impossible to show a causal relationship between the two, because there are so many factors that go into crime. There’s drugs and unemployment and weather. There’s just so many things that are beyond police control that to think that they’re the ones causing it is tough."

Violent crime overall is at its lowest level in Dallas in decades, but not all neighborhoods have seen the same improvements, and not all have the same political pull at City Hall. Mata argues that the department is approaching a tipping point when high crime rates in southern Dallas will spread to the city’s northern half, with too few officers on hand to stem the tide.

“This seems like a horrible thing to say, but people will wake up and recognize [what’s going on] unfortunately when the right person is killed,” Mata says. “That’s the saddest thing to say about this city. You’ll hear about the person getting killed north of [Interstate 30], but you just don’t hear about the people getting killed south of [I-30].”

When high-profile crimes start happening more frequently in North Dallas, political leaders will listen, Mata says.

“It hasn’t happened to them yet, and to be honest with you, the people who have money can buy cops," he says. "They hire off-duty officers to patrol their neighborhoods. The neighborhood that the mayor lives in, he has 24-hour police protection, because they can afford to pay off-duty officers to drive their neighborhood 24-7. That’s why they don’t have crime in their neighborhood. The neighborhoods in West Dallas, South Dallas and East Dallas, they shouldn’t have to pay for 24-hour service. Even if they could, they shouldn’t have to."

Dallas Police Chief U. Renee Hall has been circumspect in the discussion about staffing levels. Over the last year, as Hall has pushed the City Council to sign off on a staffing study for DPD, she’s said she doesn’t know exactly how many officers the department needs, despite repeated questions from council members.

“We just don’t know," Hall told the council in November. "Once we finish this staffing study, we’ll know what we need to police this city.”

The study the chief referred to is being conducted by KPMG, one of the biggest auditing firms in the U.S. The council signed off on it in November after spending more than a year arguing over how to pay for the city’s half of its $500,000 cost. A federal grant is covering $250,000, and the city ended up paying its half out of reserve funds. In a statement, DPD said it had high hopes for the insight it will provide into the department’s personnel management: “The goal of the review is to provide insight and recommendations for optimal staffing levels. The Dallas Police Department is focused on providing the highest level of service to Dallas residents, and this study will not only help us with those efforts but also identify where we can improve.”

As proposed to the city, KPMG’s study is in line with the methods suggested by Wilson and Weiss. The firm will release three reports, the first of which will analyze DPD’s patrol staffing. The second will look at the department’s staffing outside of patrol and the third will make final recommendations after KPMG hears responses from the city.

City Council member Lee Kleinman, who along with Mayor Mike Rawlings was one of only two members to vote against recent raises and starting-pay increases for Dallas cops, says he fears the notion that the city needs more officers is already set before the city has seen any results from the study. (In September, the council raised starting salaries for Dallas police and fire recruits to $60,000 and increased pay by 3 percent across the board.) They found money for the pay bumps by lowering the property tax rate to 77.67 cents per $100 valuation instead of the 76.5 cents suggested in City Manager T.C. Broadnax's initial budget. The rate last year was 78.04 cents.

“We’ve got to give the chief the chance to do her job with this manpower study and figure out what the right number is,” Kleinman says.

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Dallas police march in formal attire at the memorial event in 2017.
Dallas police march in formal attire at the memorial event in 2017.
Brian Maschino

Unless KPMG suggests that Dallas doesn't need more officers, the conclusion of their study will mark the beginning of the really hard part for the city: Finding qualified people who want to wear the badge. With unemployment low and private employers still hiring, the police department has struggled to find workers willing to take a job that offers odd hours, plenty of headaches and the chance to get shot while dealing with Dallas' seamy side.

So far, hiring officers at anything above a replacement clip has proved impossible for DPD. In fact, the department has lost at least 42 officers through attrition in each of the last three fiscal years, including a staggering 268-officer net loss in 2016-17, as the city struggled to repair its damaged pension system. Last month, Chief Hall told the council she expects to lose staff through attrition this year, as the number of job applications is running far behind last year. To boost things, in December the department proposed eliminating the requirement that recruits have at least 45 hours of college credit and instead accept those who've passed the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement exam.

San Antonio, Austin and Fort Worth don't require college hours for recruits, DPD Assistant Chief Angela Shaw told the City Council's public safety committee.

Competition from other cities in the DFW area has added to the attrition problem. DPD's training for new officers is respected enough among neighboring departments that some allow for "lateral transfers" that let Dallas officers move to new jobs without losing seniority. Council member Philip Kingston suggested DPD should consider its own lateral transfer program.

Griggs, who’s frequently complained about staffing and response times, pushed the council for the package of raises.

"I continue to support giving an additional raise of 5 percent to our first responders," Griggs said in September, before the 3 percent raises were approved. "Particularly, I know with our police officers how stretched we are right now. I believe that's in part because we don't have enough officers. We've had issues with retention and certainly hiring new officers. ... [Salary] is an important component of that."

The raises and starting-pay bump made Dallas competitive with surrounding cities, something Dallas’ police associations have long argued is essential, but they haven’t helped DPD’s hiring yet.

Kingston, who helped Griggs push through the raises and increased starting salaries, said in January he was frustrated that the DPD is still underwater on new hires.

"We need something else," he said. "This is the third or fourth year in a row" that we've lost more officers than we've hired.

That something else, McCabe says, might not be out there. Or worse yet, it might be.

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Dallas police do more than just police the streets. They are essential for public safety at large events like the state fair.EXPAND
Dallas police do more than just police the streets. They are essential for public safety at large events like the state fair.
Kathy Tran

Dallas’ starting wages are competitive. Recruits here are going to have a more exciting job than in surrounding municipalities, thanks to Dallas’ size and complexity. The city is kicking away roadblocks to hiring. All of that might not be enough to solve the attrition problem. What might really help DPD find more officers is something that would hurt the rest of us and crimp the budget needed to pay for all those new cops: a recession.

Police departments often struggle to hire when the economy is up, like it is today, and experience a rush in hiring when the economy heads south, McCabe says. When Dallas had its highest recent staffing levels, the U.S. economy was just coming out of recession and unemployment was high, making police work more attractive.

“Let’s face it, the perception of policing as a career and law enforcement in general is not that high," McCabe says. "People don’t see it as an attractive profession. It’s gotten kind of dragged through the mud over the last two years. You combine those two things, and you’re going to have difficulty recruiting people."

Cities and departments can try to sweeten the pot, as Dallas has done in the past with its generous pension plan for police and fire employees, but they then face being left on the hook when the economy tanks.

“Out in California, they were facing the same thing, because there were a million things you could do besides being a police officer,” McCabe says. “They threw the kitchen sink at officers — they gave them these sweetheart schedules. They gave them sweetheart pensions. You name it, they bent over backwards and still didn’t get the numbers they needed, and then when the economy went south and they had to pay for all these things, everybody came and flocked to the job and they got screwed because they couldn’t afford it anymore.”

That's a problem Dallas knows too well. The city flirted with insolvency because of its underfunded police and fire pension system and several lawsuits over pay equity. Problems with the pensions were patched up in 2017, and last year the city settled the pay lawsuits for $235 million.

On top of that, Dallas has added about $61 million to its last two budgets for police and fire pay increases. That’s hamstrung the city, Kleinman says.

“Mata and all those guys said this is what’s going to stop the attrition, then the report came out saying it didn’t work,” Kleinman says. “Now, we’ve dedicated more budget to the existing officers in the hopes of stopping attrition, which means we have less money for new officers because there’s only so much to go around.”

Dallas paid for the most recent pay increase, at least in this year’s budget, by giving residents a smaller tax rate cut — Kleinman points out that residents will still pay more property taxes this year because of increased property values — but that might not be possible in the future. Property values could decrease, or the Legislature could limit property tax rates. Then the city would potentially have to take the budgetary knife to services like parks or libraries and a host of other programs that, like crime, affect residents' daily quality of life at least as much as long wait times for a police officer to show up at a non-emergency. It's a kind of guns-or-butter argument that roils spending decisions at the national level, reduced to city size. In Dallas' case, the choice has already been made, before we've heard from the accountants. Dallas needs more cops.

“So that is an option, reduce city services, but then are we going to be a public safety district and nothing else?” Kleinman says. "Is that what we’re going to be?”

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