The Myth of Jones: A column
By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large
KYLE – Addressing the obvious isn’t always the most compelling task in journalism, but if you ignore it, then you go so far as to not even address the obvious, and we’d certainly hate to be accused of missing the obvious. So, here goes with the obvious.
Kyle has a pretty serious law enforcement problem. Everyone knows it. The citizens know it. The business owners know it. The administration and city council know it. Judging from the reported remarks of candidates in the Aug. 9 special city council election, they know it.
The police chief, Michael Blake, knows it. Tomball, Blake’s last town, counted 12,000 citizens and 40 sworn police personnel. He traded that in this year for Kyle, with about 30,000 citizens and 19 sworn personnel.
And you know who else knows it. The hoods know it. They’re always the first to know it.
One early morning in mid-May, burglars broke into the Center Street office of this area’s most venerable business, The Free Press, stealing $20,000 worth of computer equipment. Thank heaven, our good friend Bob Barton wasn’t in there. The 77-year-old publisher was just walking out the front door as the hoods came in the back.
In early June, the Kyle Police Department (KPD) issued a warning to Kyle residents to be extra careful about locking up their cars, due to a wave of car burglaries in town.
In mid July, hoods under cover of a single night took the Center Street district by storm, breaking into Synergy Salon, Pizza Classics, Railroad BBQ, the Kyle Masonic Lodge and, just for kicks, they tried to break into The Free Press again. To no surprise, the crime problem in Kyle has become something of a small crusade in The Free Press.
At first glance, one wants to howl at the KPD. After all, this action took place almost within plain sight of KPD’s Center Street headquarters. But then one looks at KPD staffing levels compared with other city police departments, and it’s impossible to miss the obvious. KPD is operating with more than one arm tied behind its back, ludicrously under-staffed. Policy wonks can argue about whether additional police generally deter crime, but KPD is so light that such a discussion is prematurely absurd.
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) Crime in the United States report for 2006, an average of 2.3 full-time law enforcement officers per 1,000 inhabitants worked in American cities. For cities with between 25,000 and 49,999 residents, the average was 1.8 officers per 1,000 people.
KPD is running with about one-third that amount. At 19 sworn personnel for a town with 30,000 residents, KPD employs about 0.6 officers per 1,000 people.
San Marcos claims 50,000 residents and 82 sworn officers. Seguin, which is in that 25,000-30,000 range, has 49 sworn officers. Universal City, with about 20,000 people, claims 23 patrol officers. Bastrop, which can’t be up to 15,000 people, has 18 sworn officers.
We’re not going to point fingers here and assign blame to anyone in particular for KPD under-staffing. The most obvious place to look is City Manager Tom Mattis, but we tend cut him slack because when he took this job in 2002, he walked into a time bomb, a town just about to burst its britches with growth for which no serious provisions had been made.
Previous administrations rubber-stamped residential developments and didn’t worry about the rest. It fell to Mattis, knowing the town would explode, to generate the water supplies, create locations for businesses, build roads, try to set up an economy and everything else, and he took it on with barely a whiff of staff for his first four years. If he let the cops slide, it’s understandable, for reasons soon to follow.
It seems as though the KPD has been on hold for two years. In 2006, the KPD endured 52 percent turnover because of relatively low pay, according to a study commissioned by the city council. In May 2007, former Chief Al Moore resigned and the city took seven months before naming Blake this January. Right away, a measure to implement civil service rules for KPD went on the city ballot in May, and it passed. So, now the city is waiting until full civil service implementation in October before filling five new openings for patrol officers and one more for a sergeant.
But here’s the real reason we can’t blame Kyle for letting its KPD staffing slide: Crime hasn’t been a big problem in Kyle, until just now.
Let’s return to the FBI statistics based on its Uniform Crime Reporting in 2006, the last year for which complete numbers are available. They will show that Kyle didn’t really need a larger police force, until just now.
The 2006 FBI numbers give Kyle’s population then as 18,274. The number of violent crimes reported that year in Kyle came to four, all aggravated assaults. No robberies, no forcible rapes, no murders or negligent manslaughters. Just four assaults.
The number of property crimes came to 134 – 121 burglaries and 13 more in the larceny-theft category. Put it all together and Kyle reported a grand total of 138 crimes in 2006.
Now we have to ask ourselves: In the real world, where cities have to make responsible decisions about money, would it have been worthwhile for Kyle to pay 1.8 sworn officers per 1,000 people, about 32 officers, to handle a grand total of 138 crimes, basically a remote burglary every three days? Certainly not, especially not when we look at these other cities in our little comparison group.
The FBI counted San Marcos in 2006 at 47,418 people with 166 violent crimes (including 25 rapes, 33 robberies and a murder) and 1,359 property crimes (including 975 larceny-thefts).
Seguin, with a population of 24,917, reported 59 violent crimes (eight rapes, 12 robberies and 39 aggravated assaults) and 1,230 property crimes (including 1,027 larcenies).
Universal City, population 17,125 in 2006, reported 30 violent crimes (including two rapes and six robberies), plus 371 property crimes.
Bastrop, population 7,504 in 2006, counted seven violent crimes (including two rapes and four robberies), along with 434 property crimes (including 373 larcenies).
Tomball, Blake’s old town, counted 10,220 people in 2006, with 43 violent crimes (including a murder, seven rapes and nine robberies) to go with 397 property crimes.
It should be obvious why all those towns have much larger police departments than Kyle. It’s because they need larger police departments, and they’ve needed larger police departments for quite some time. Even if we assume that KPD reported crime on the low side (because a larger force might be more proactive about identifying crime) and double Kyle’s 2006 numbers to over-compensate, Kyle’s crime rate still pales next to these other cities. Simply, Kyle was a real quiet town, until just now.
Maybe there’s a lesson here. Maybe towns don’t expand their police departments unless or until they have to and, of course, the signal that it’s time is a crime increase. When we start seeing audacious criminal performances like multiple break-ins on Center Street in the same night, that’s a signal.
Help is on the way, if not right away. The city will hire those five patrol officers and one sergeant already budgeted once the civil service transition is complete in October. The FY 2009 budget then calls for five more patrol officers and one more sergeant. Before the end of December, Kyle could push its sworn force past 30 officers. Blake actually asked for ten patrol officers and two sergeants on the new budget, and one figures he must have really wanted 20 patrol officers and four sergeants.
But the budget process has just begun, public hearings will take place and if the people want even more police, they can certainly go before the city council and say they want even more police. But it will cost them. The city already has earmarked 36 percent of its $8.5 million general fund budget for police.
When Mattis introduced Blake as the new police chief in January, we knew Blake couldn’t be happy with KPD’s staffing level. We asked him if he would prioritize growing the force.
“It’s all about what level of service you want,” Blake said. “… It’s a matter of what the citizens want, what we can afford, what we need.”
Wants and needs seem to have come together as Kylites ask for a higher level of police service in recent months. Thank the hoods, if you must. They’re always the people who end up raising the issue.