HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- As she drives around west Houston, Officer Victoria Ferguson said most evenings she's busy running from call to call as she works the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift.
"It is very busy. We're always on the go. We'll be on one scene and then dispatch will be like, 'Hey, I need you for this code one and then this code two,'" Ferguson said. "Some days are a little slower than others, but Sundays are like, everything is just popping off."
With Houston in the midst of its worst extended crime spike in decades, 13 Investigates found the Houston Police Department is struggling to keep up with retirements despite years of increased recruiting and a starting police officer salary of nearly $60,000.
Since 2019, HPD has hired 754 new officers, but internal records show it's lost more than it has hired. The department had just 5,175 officers in September, which is 45 fewer officers than the department had three years ago, according to a 13 Investigates analysis of HPD's Monthly Operational Summaries.
When asked about the new faces she sees at her Westside Patrol Station, Ferguson told 13 Investigates, "from what I've been hearing, more retirements than rookies."
Our investigation found fewer officers mean HPD is not only losing the valuable knowledge veteran officers can pass down from their decades of service, but it is also slowing down response time to some of the most serious emergencies.
"You're not seeing 30-year guys and 35-year guys anymore. They hit 20, they start looking, and they hit 25, they're gone," said former HPD Sgt. John Yencha, who retired from HPD in 2017 after nearly 35 years with the force. "Policing has a learning curve. When you're a young man, as a policeman, you have a tendency to do things a lot quicker, make some rash decisions. You don't have the experiences or the life experiences that go with that job. When you have older guys around, who've been through that and been down those roads and say, 'Hey, put the brakes on. There might be another way to do this and make it a little bit easier.'"
Right now, it takes six minutes to get an HPD officer to your home in a life or death emergency, which is 33 seconds longer than it took three years ago.
When it comes to all categories of 911 calls, the response time is up more than 19 minutes from three years ago to an average of nearly an hour now.
Below is a look at five years of the most serious 911 calls.
Priority 1 are considered dangerous crimes in progress. There is only a slight increase from three years ago, but compared to five years ago, those serious calls are up 17 percent.
Even though he's retired, Yencha said he had one neighbor knock on his door for help after her home was broken into and she spent hours waiting for police.
"I've seen people here waiting for hours," he said.
Our investigation found most officers who left HPD in recent years also left law enforcement altogether, according to an analysis of data from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement. Just 15% of officers who left the HPD since 2016 are still licensed in Texas and working in law enforcement, including at local constable's offices or at the sheriff's office.
When we asked Ferguson, who has been on the job for two years, about the staffing shortage, she said, "the more the merrier."
"A lot more honestly," said Ferguson, who was named rookie of the year. "It would help with all the calls because we have a bunch of calls holding. So I could go to this call and if another call drops while I'm dealing with this call, another unit could go to that call that just dropped."
Without the extra officers, Ferguson said calls are prioritized and dispatch could pull someone off a scene so they can respond to a more serious incident.
"We need more people," she said.
'Incentive to quit this year'
When Yencha joined HPD in 1981, his father didn't want him to be a police officer. Now, even though Yencha would love for his son to follow his legacy, his son is no longer interested in being an officer.
"Policemen like to please, but the atmosphere out there right now does not allow them to," Yencha said. "No matter what they do, they're wrong and if they make a mistake, whether it's a mistake of their heart or conscience, they get punished quickly and severely."
He said the current atmosphere could be a deterrent in getting officers to apply.
This year, HPD will run six cadet classes, which is one more than last year. But, it could take up to a year or more from the time a person applies to their first day on the job.
Despite more classes and increased pay over the years, HPD documents show cadet classes since 2019 had at least 126 vacancies.
Yencha still keeps in touch with his former colleagues but is enjoying spending his free time traveling across the country and to Houston area spots he never had the chance to explore when he was working at HPD and, at times, a second job.
His friends still at HPD have noticed him enjoying retirement, too. He said there are five officers in his friend group who are planning to retire, most of whom have specialized skills that took years of experience to master.
He expects even more officers who are eligible to retire this year will take advantage of inflation powering a cost of living increase for police pensions and retire before the end of the year.
In 2020, about half of the 219 HPD pensions awarded went to employees between 50 and 59 years old, according to Houston Police Officers' Pension System's latest report. Nearly 13% went to employees younger than 50 years old, 17% went to employees between 60 and 65 years old and 18% went to those 65 and older.
"There's an incentive to quit this year. It's a perfect storm. You got all this stuff going on. Anti-police rhetoric, defund the police, constant pounding. A lot of the violence we've seen here lately," Yencha said. "And then you got there's this one time shot at this (cost of living adjustment) that's historic ... They [go to] make a decision. Do I want to leave that money on the table or should I go? So you're going to have a lot of guys with a lot of experience who have to make that decision here in the next few months and the ones I'm talking to are saying, 'I'm going to go. This is too good to leave behind.'"
'It's a calling'
HPD Officer Mayra Seay, who is a recruiter for the department, has been with HPD for 15 years and says by the time most people apply, they've already decided it's something they're passionate about.
She said she's seen a steady flow of people coming in for interviews since joining the recruiting department two years ago.
"It's a calling, so regardless of what's going on and what people's views are, people still want to be police officers. They still want to serve and protect, and they want to make a change to our community," Seay said.
Ferguson said her brother's even interested in joining HPD, following a line of family members who serve including two uncles, a grandfather and her dad, who retired out of the Westside station she works at now.
With fewer officers now than when she joined, Ferguson said she knows there will be calls waiting for her when she logs on for her next shift.
"I'll drink coffee to keep me awake, stuff like that, but no matter how tired I am, I still want to help," she said. "No matter how tired I am or I want to go home, it's not about me at that point. Someone called 911, so now it's going to be about them. I have to serve and protect them."
Basic requirements to be an HPD officer include being between the ages of 20.5 and 44 years old, being a U.S. citizen (born or naturalized), having a valid drivers' license and proof of liability insurance, having stable employment and passing all phases of the application process.
More information about a career with HPD, including additional requirements and scheduling an interview, is available online.
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