Interim police Chief Henry Porretto will complete his first 90 days at the helm of the Galveston Police Department this month.
Despite his 22-year tenure with GPD, Porretto says he learns something new every action-packed day. “It’s been a non-stop learning experience”, he says. “Most of the time, my day begins before the work day starts and ends long after it’s over.”
“There’s no halfway when it comes to being a police officer in Galveston,” Porretto said. “It’s 100 percent commitment; you’ve got to really care.” That goes for Porretto, his captains, lieutenants, sergeants and the 100 men and women who currently serve the island as police officers.
“It’s not easy to be a great police officer because you have to maintain a high standard of professionalism while being tough on people who break the law, compassionate with victims, and sensitive to residents all within the space of a few minutes,” he said. “We have many outstanding young officers with great potential who are striving to meet that high standard.”
“I want to support these officers, invest in them, and help them to make Galveston a safer community.”
He’s convinced, he says, that the community needs to know the names and faces of the officers who are here to protect them, and vice versa.
“People who know each other have a better chance of working together for a positive result,” he said. “Communication is the key.”
Q. What do you believe are the police department’s greatest accomplishments in the past three months?
A. “On the investigative end, we’ve had some officers do solid work that has resulted in solving a major robbery and uncovering a significant drug operation.
I’ve had to be realistic and creative because money is tight. We’ve had to seek out alternative means to accomplish our goals. We’ve partnered with other law enforcement agencies in our backyard.
I have a strong working relationship with Tom Engells, the new Chief of Police for UTMB. We share officers in a joint operation related to narcotics. I also have two officers who, after their regular shifts, work with a special federal taskforce on child pornography. It’s good for our officers to gain the experience of working with other departments and agencies, and it’s good to focus additional time and energy on these problems.
I’ve initiated a police reserve program that makes it possible for people who meet certain standards to volunteer as police officers. This is a great recruiting tool. I’ve got a strong leader, Butch Stroud, who will be managing the program, and so far we are looking to employ about 25 reserve officers.
Also, we’ve successfully negotiated a one-year-extension of the collective bargaining contract. Recognizing the fragile financial condition of Galveston, the Municipal Police Association was open to working with the city toward a common goal. It took some time but ultimately everyone agreed that a year would give us time to work through the issues together. Robert Sanderson, GMPA director, and the other members of the bargaining team were able to understand the complexity of the budget process in relation to the overall issue.
We’ve completed the installation of a new high-powered computer system. I’m not the guy who got this started but I am responsible for making sure that it is properly installed and that our officers know how to use it. We had a few bumps in the beginning but I am confident that it will create greater efficiency for our officers’ in filing reports and working investigations. It’s important in these technological times to be up-to-date and to use the new technologies to strengthen our policing efforts.”
And, I’m proud of our continuing commitment to community policing.
Q. Tell me about Community Policing.
A. “Community policing is time-intensive and it requires a lot of communication between police officers and citizens. We’ve got work to do to show the people who live here that we are serious about protecting them and respecting them. We are also asking them to do some work as well, by reaching out to their police officers and introducing themselves or at least saying “hello.”
As a part of the community policing component, we set up some Neighborhood Enforcement Teams (NET) to work in specific neighborhoods and to focus on property crimes and preventing crimes. We have targeted neighborhoods that have been victimized and we’ve had a positive response in the neighborhoods where the teams have been deployed, with not one complaint. That’s a program I would like to expand but it depends on having overtime funds available.”
Q. What’s your philosophy of leadership? Why is professionalism so important for police?
A. “This job is about leadership. Because of the nature of their job, police officers must be independent decision-makers. They need to be led, not pushed. My philosophy is to invest in the officers who are doing the job. Our officers need more formal education and additional training outside of Galveston. It’s not just what you learn at trainings, it’s the interaction with other officers you meet who may have a different way of approaching similar problems.
I believe in building professionalism among our officers. Remember, we are called in when there’s a concern and people are already upset. It could be that one neighbor is angry because another neighbor won’t cut his grass. Or, it could be that there is a burglary in progress. How each officer approaches the situation is critical to their overall effectiveness and the overall impression they make. Our whole organization is judged by the action of every, single officer on every single case. In most jobs you can make a few mistakes, and learn from them, but in policing, you can’t make many mistakes.
Right now we’re spending about 60 percent of our available policing time answering calls. Of course, that’s what we’re supposed to do. Still, I’d like more time for officers to be engaged in preventive work and community policing. That is, limiting criminal opportunities and closing access to victims, not just being there after the fact.”
Q. What change would you most like to make in the months to come?
A. “I’d like to hire more officers. We know from our service standard index, which is based on calls for service, officers’ availability and response times, that we need at least 18 more officers to have basic coverage. Cities of our size and larger average about 700 emergency calls per month. Our officers handle well over 1,000 emergency calls per month -- we have about 30 percent more emergency calls than League City.
I’d also like to assign police vehicles to individual officers. It’s good for the police cars to be parked in the neighborhoods. It works as a deterrent for bad actors to see a police presence in the neighborhoods and it should be a comfort to citizens to know there’s a police officer close by.
I’d also like to increase training opportunities for all ranks. My research has indicated that better educated personnel can be directly related to fewer citizen complaints. I our line of work, we have some difficult customers that we have to please.”
Q. What can citizens do to support the police in becoming more effective?
A. “We can always use accurate and timely information. If anyone sees suspicious behavior or something out-of-place or troubling in the neighborhood, it’s helpful to call the police and let us check it out.
And, here’s something everyone can do: Talk to your police officers. Introduce yourself. Tell them you appreciate what they do, because it is a tough job. This means a lot to the front line officers. Meaningful communication is what we should all strive to achieve.
Community groups can speak up and help guide our work. I have attended several meetings with groups such as the Gulf Coast Interfaith University Area, LULAC, GAIN, and I believe they are sincerely committed to helping me formulate a better way of addressing needs and problems that have arisen in our community. I’m open to this kind of discourse. I welcome the help. We all want a safer community.
I strongly recommend that residents attend the Citizens Police Academy. We’re very proud of this project and the people who have attended seem to learn a great deal and enjoy it. Right now there is a one and a half-hour luncheon meeting at 11:30 a.m. every Wednesday at Fish Tales. There will be another Citizens academy beginning later this year. People who are interested should contact Sgt. Destin Sims at 409-765-3606.”
Q. What are the most serious crime problems in Galveston?
A. “If you look at crime trends comparing the last few years, you’ll see that the island is less dangerous than it has been. We’re seeing a steady decrease over the last few years in burglaries and robberies. Fewer cars have been stolen too. This should be attributed to the hard work of the men and women in patrol and investigations. Working together as a team they were able to apprehend violators and put them in jail.
We still have a lot of drug traffic and drugs are the basis of a broader criminal activity. We have drug-related thefts and burglaries. We have car burglaries, many of these could be eliminated if the owners would lock their car and take valuables out of plain sight. We also have a number of uninsured drivers who won’t get insurance.
Galveston sits at the end of IH 45 so you could say we’re at the end of the road. People are drawn here because of the laid back, or relaxed atmosphere of our island. Also, we are a resort community and when people are on vacation, they are not always careful to lock their cars and watch their belongings.
As a city we have our share of public order crimes such as public intoxication and the like, and these are precisely the types of crimes community policing targets. We are concerned with sexual assaults – which are not increasing but not decreasing either. We actively pursue complaints. There were only two murders in Galveston last year, and unfortunately this is one of the types of crime that it is almost impossible to prevent.
It’s not generally known but Galveston police catch crooks like nobody’s business. Our clearance rate is reasonable and I think this should be a point of pride for residents. We have a dedicated group of very hard working individuals. In the police community, it’s said of Galveston, that a rookie who works one year here has the equivalent of five years experience in other nearby towns.”
Henry Porretto is a Galveston native. He attended school at Sacred Heart and graduated O’Connell High School. He received an associate degree in criminal justice at Galveston College and a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Mountain State University. He also attended Texas State University for a certified public manager designation and completed a labor relations training program at Harvard University. He was named GPD Officer of the Year in 1994 and 2006 and was awarded the Commanders Coin of Excellence in 2009. He is a member of the Governor’s Crime Victims Advisory Committee. His mother, Rosa Marie Porretto, and two brothers reside on the island. His two sisters live in Houston.