- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Texas newspapers:

San Antonio Express-News. May 20, 2017.

For far too long, the San Antonio Police Department has been operating with too few officers.

For years, the department has been short roughly 100 to 150 officers, a staggering number that makes it difficult to cover the basics and meet a wide range of community needs.

We expect law enforcement to promptly respond to a variety of calls and tasks that range from the mundane to the catastrophic. These are calls that often come with great stress and risk.

While the San Antonio Police Department has done an admirable job under the circumstances, the staffing shortage has to be taking a toll.

High levels of vacancies mean exhausting overtime and fatigue for officers.

It means less backup and potentially longer waits for non-emergency calls. It’s happening just as homicides surged in 2016.

It also sidelines or limits potential forms of innovative policing and community outreach.

Filling these vacancies has to be a priority, and as those positions are filled, we strongly encourage the city to expand the HOPE team, an innovative form of policing to reach the homeless.

Express-News Columnist Josh Brodesky recently profiled the HOPE team, which comprises two veteran officers, Monty McCann and Joe Farris Jr. The name stands for Homeless Outreach Positive Encounters.

McCann and Farris focus on restoring IDs for the homeless and connecting them with appropriate services. The idea is to change lives, reduce calls and hopefully save taxpayers money.

A crime deserves a criminal response, but homelessness and mental illness deserve a crisis response. The HOPE team officers use such discrimination to improve lives.

Yes, there is a heavy component of social work in what these officers are doing. But the reality is that we routinely ask officers to do social work when they respond to the homeless and mentally ill.

Given the controversial history around policing the homeless here - pointless ticketing, fining a chef for feeding the homeless, brief consideration of making it illegal to give to beggars - the HOPE team is a new and welcome approach.

But it should not be the only approach. It should not supplant traditional police work. It’s not OK for the homeless to disrupt private businesses and harass residents and tourists. It’s still important for uniform officers to intervene in those situations, and when appropriate, ticket offenders.

But the HOPE team is a valuable and humane supplement to traditional police work.

For example, San Antonio Municipal Court Judge John Bull said his court refers defendants to the HOPE team, knowing that the officers can connect those people with the right resources and recover IDs. Desperate parents trying to find their adult children often contact the HOPE officers.

HOPE officers have been training other officers about their approach to policing. This is important, but it’s not enough. The team should be expanded to six officers to allow for continuous coverage and outreach. A civilian staffer also should be added to analyze and measure the program’s effectiveness.

This brings us back to vacancies.

Such a persistently high vacancy level cuts off innovation, making it very difficult to expand something like the HOPE team. It’s past time for city management and the San Antonio Police Officer’s Association to work together - the bruising contract negotiations are over - to fund and market these openings to attract quality cadets who want to help others.

Again and again, residents list public safety as one of their top needs (right up there with addressing traffic congestion). That discussion often is distilled to putting a cop on every street corner. While that image might engender a sense of security, it’s really about having the resources to embrace innovative and effective policing - the kind of police work that makes the community safer, changes lives, reduces calls and helps others.

That’s the goal of the HOPE team, and that’s why it should be expanded.

___

The Dallas Morning News. May 20, 2017.

If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to zoom right past the abandoned Forest Theater at Martin Luther King Boulevard and Interstate 45. Its current state - and the sad strip shopping center beside it - doesn’t hint that it was once a historic gem in the middle of South Dallas.

Here’s why nonprofit CitySquare’s plans to resurrect this 68-year-old building, in one of Dallas’ poorest neighborhoods, should matter to all residents, north and south.

CitySquare, a longtime leader in working on Dallas’ most stubborn poverty-related problems, wants to turn this property into a center for educational arts. Countless studies have shown that access to performing arts and creative activities can play a pivotal role in boosting the economic prospects of poor communities.

Cultural centers build stronger community connections, which in turn build stronger neighborhoods. CitySquare could be onto something transformative for this city.

Dallas has the highest neighborhood inequity of any city, with more than 250,000 residents, and the poverty rate has increased 42 percent over the past 15 years.

The city has long searched for answers to try to reverse these vexing numbers. Lifting up the poor is not just the right thing to do, it also improves the tax base and economic investment opportunities for the entire city.

Numerous tasks forces and commissions have more than sufficiently identified the problem. The Forest Theater resurrection could actually provide one solution

The Forest Theater was once the neighborhood place for African-American families to go see movies in the 1950s. Over the years, it’s also been a concert hall and a blues club. Singer Erykah Badu operated it from 2004 to 2008 as an arts center, but it’s been closed since then.

CitySquare recently made its whirlwind purchase, noting that it was able to secure the complex with the help of a foundation run by one of the poverty-fighter’s board members, Jon Halbert, and his wife, Linda.

Larry James, CitySquare’s chief executive officer, says the Halberts have a passion for the ways in which the arts can intersect constructively with communities in need.

The hope is to model the revived Forest Theater after the impressive Ellis Marsalis Center for Music in New Orleans, praised for providing performance and educational opportunities in New Orleans’s poor Ninth Ward.

That center draws professional musicians from all over the country to its performance hall and recording facilities. It teaches year-round classes to students in piano, strings and horns. Its community center is home to cultural forums and neighborhood meetings.

Imagine what vibrant facilities at a revived Forest Theater could do to bring all kinds of people together in this city. What a needed healing balm it would be to see groups from neighborhoods all over the city celebrating this important piece of South Dallas’ past.

___

Houston Chronicle. May 22, 2017.

At 91, Erlene Gomez was still spry enough to get off a bus and walk to her destination. But on a recent Thursday night, someone driving near Heights Boulevard at 15th Street hit her as she crossed the street and left without stopping to find out if Gomez needed aid. For a woman in her nineties, that dastardly act was a death sentence.

The brutal crime of hit and run is common in Houston. Last month, Reginald Lauderdale was riding his bicycle in the 9500 block of Tidwell when he was struck by a driver who fled the scene. Also in April, Jose Portillo was catapulted off the motorcycle he was riding in the 13300 block of Westheimer by a motorist who fled without providing aid.

Hit-and-run incidents are but one of the many crimes in Houston that go unsolved, often because witnesses may be afraid to come forward. Or, just as likely, people may not be compelled to help a fellow Houstonian in distress because they believe their involvement won’t make a difference.

That’s just not so. The two cases from last month were solved as a result of anonymous tips to Crime Stoppers, as reported by the Chronicle’s Andrew Kragie.

In each case, police had little to work on prior to the tip. The Houston Police Department is able to deploy 5,000 law enforcement officers for a city of more than 2 million people. That’s roughly one officer per 5,000 residents for a city that’s larger than the state of New Jersey. Security cameras cover some but not all parts of the city. There’s simply no way that officers can have eyes and ears on all of Houston, 24-7. People who have witnessed criminal acts should find a safe way to report what they’ve seen.

With HPD’s finite resources, officers working these cases need all the help they can get. It may seem Pollyannaish to ask citizens to get involved, but citizen involvement truly is a powerful policing tool. More than 33,000 cases have been solved and more than 25,000 suspects have been arrested locally since 1980 through tips relayed through Crime Stoppers, according to its Houston website. The hit-and-run driver who killed Gomez is still at large, but police believe that the motorist may have been driving a white Toyota SUV. By doubling their vigilance, Houstonians can help our city in ways that don’t involve a risk to personal safety.

We shouldn’t be lulled into thinking police alone can keep our community safe. Ultimately, our responsibility to each other requires us to step out of our comfort zone and to get involved. Today, it’s Gomez and her family who need the community’s help. Tomorrow, it could be you.

___

Beaumont Enterprise. May 22, 2017.

After talking about it for months, President Trump finally began plans to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but members of Congress from Texas must monitor this process carefully and ensure that the pact survives for the good of their state.

Candidate Trump said some incendiary things about trade and Mexico during his campaign, once calling NAFTA a “disaster.” He has toned down those remarks lately, and his administration circulated a draft letter on NAFTA that keeps much of the existing agreement in place.

But last month he almost pulled out of NAFTA before top advisers hurriedly persuaded him to renegotiate it instead. Clearly, unpredictability is a trait of Trump on NAFTA and other issues.

The reality today is that Texas has more trade with Mexico than any other state, with robust exports worth $93 billion to our southern neighbor. Much of the commerce between the three nations flows through Texas highways, port and airports, creating further jobs here.

NAFTA has particularly benefited farmers in Texas and the rest of the U.S., and agriculture is a perennially vulnerable sector of our economy that needs all the help it can get.

NAFTA is more than 20 years old, and it could be updated to cover new technologies and trends. But the heart of it remains valid, and it cannot be blamed for the decline in factory jobs that has affected the U.S. and developed countries all over the world. Today, those jobs are increasingly being replaced by high-tech machines - in their home countries - rather than being exported to low-wage countries.

House and Senate members from Texas - most of whom are Republicans - must nurture Trump’s better instincts on this renegotiation. They have real influence in Washington, and recent events have shown that the White House does react to feedback - or pushback. There’s a win-win-win resolution waiting here for all three countries. It must be found.

___

The Monitor. May 23, 2017.

Weslaco Mayor David Suarez recently cast the deciding vote against holding a workshop to discuss whether to change the city’s current single-member district representation on the City Commission to at-large seats. In doing so, Suarez declared he was “going with the people,” which had voted to institute such single-member districts in 2007.

We commend his statement and his reasoning for not wanting to bring up the issue for commission review because the majority of Weslaco’s voters have made it clear that they want single-member representation. Many advocates of single-member districts say such a system better helps elected officials to connect with the immediate needs of where they live. It is also believed to diversify elected bodies.

Of course, holding a workshop would not have undone that 2007 vote, but it would have opened the door to possibly changing the city’s electoral process in the future.

We respect the concerns of Commissioner Greg Kerr who said he doesn’t “see the harm in talking about it and having a workshop about it. We’ll get a lot of participation. We’ll have a lot of people there.”

But we respectfully disagree with Kerr who said that holding a workshop would best reflect the wishes of the public. Many citizens cannot get off work or out of other evening commitments to attend city commission meetings or workshops. If, in fact, the public wants to return to at-large districts, then citizens should launch a petition to do so. If enough signatures are solicited - the number of which currently is being debated - then commissioners would have no choice but to vote to place the matter on an upcoming election ballot and once again take it to the public.

As Commissioner Olga Noriega said at the May 16 meeting: “We should respect the voice of the people. . They voted; they wanted it to be what it is. We all up here got elected by single-member districts, but to say the commission has that power to change it, and to have a workshop, I believe takes advantage of their position on the commission.”

About 10 years ago, Valley Interfaith assisted the local group, Citizens in Action, to get more than 2,000 signatures from voters who petitioned the city to place single-member districts on the ballot.

That same process should be replicated today, if indeed the public wants to make this change. It should not come from the commissioners, but from the people.

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