Officers, mayor square off over immigration policy
Among other requests, Houston police union wants ban against asking about status overturned
By James Pinkerton
The Houston Chronicle, July 3, 2009
Houstons largest police union, citing the death of six officers during Mayor Bill Whites tenure, called on the mayor and City Council this week to hire more officers, restore $14 million in overtime pay and overturn the long-standing policy of not questioning residents about their immigration status.
In a letter to White, Gary Blankinship, president of the Houston Police Officers Union, called last weeks slaying of veteran officer Henry Canales a 'trifeca failure' of federal, state and city government to protect citizens and police officers from criminal illegal immigrants.
White responded with a news conference Thursday to make clear there would be no change in the departments policy on illegal immigrants.
Adding four new cadet classes as the union wants would cost the city $20 million, requiring an increase in property taxes or a wide-ranging curtailment of city services that also would require laying off 500 civilian employees, White said.
Or, he said, the union could fund the cadet classes by voting to reduce their own pay by $4,000 an officer.
Blankinship disputed the mayors budget calculations, and asserted the current force of 5,182 officers means 15 fewer on the job than the 5,167 on the payroll when White took office in 2004. He noted that Police Chief Harold Hurtt said last month that the city should have 6,400 officers on the force.
'We need to reinstate the (cadet) classes, reinstate the overtime thats making up for the 1,200-officer shortage, and back off this immigration policy so our officers can be safe,' Blankinship said. 'Quit handcuffing our officers so they can identify these criminal aliens, and get them off the street before they can kill police officers.'
The union asked White to order Chief Hurtt to drop the 1993 general order prohibiting Houston police from questioning residents about their immigration status, or reporting them to immigration agents.
White countered that Houston police now are inquiring about the immigration status of those arrested and booked into jail, and are seeking fuller access to federal immigration databases.
'Im frustrated whenever any officer dies, but I would urge people not to judge the many by the actions of the few,' said White, who noted that more crime is committed by citizens than by noncitizens. 'And understand our police officers are doing what their job is arresting people so they can be convicted.'
Mayor cites upgrades
White said that since 2004 the police budget has increased by $245.6 million, or 50 percent. He also listed improvements including a new property room, upgraded helicopter fleet, improved patrol vehicles, crime lab equipment, a new police station, a real-time crime information center, and a signed contract to upgrade the departments radio system.
But Blankinship called the mayors statements misleading.
'Resources and new facilities dont answer calls, and they dont back a one-man officer unit responding to dangerous in-progress calls,' he said. 'He may have graduated 1,200 officers, but, evidently, we havent gotten a net gain, weve had a net loss.'
Councilman Mike Sullivan said he voted against the citys current budget because of cuts in the number of police academy classes and overtime.
'We can either have police overtime, or we can have a higher number of cadet classes, but you cant cut both,' Sullivan said. 'If we dont continue to keep cadets in the pipeline for cadet academy, were opening the citizens of Houston to an increase in crime.'
White said the city has applied for a federal grant to pay for four cadet classes, but will not know whether the grant will be awarded until later this year.
Newly elected District H Councilman Ed Gonzalez, who appeared with White at his City Hall news conference, said residents of his district are concerned about crime, not about the citizenship of criminals.
'If we go after criminals legal residents and illegals we are affecting the crime rate,' Gonzalez said, adding that he anticipates problems with discrimination if the citys immigration policy were changed.