Archive for June 19th, 2014

The W Word

I am talking about watermelon. I don’t know about this. I am thinking the HPD Police Chief is a little thin skinned these days. His department is under question. Heck, there is another front page story on the HPD mess today. The Chief took offense at my pal Bill King’s column last week because Bill referenced a watermelon joke. Here is Bill’s column today:

On June 8, my column argued that before we invest any more money in the Houston Police Department, it should undergo a management review by an outside consulting firm. I based my opinion on numbers from the city that, notwithstanding the fact that the department’s budget has nearly doubled in the past 10 years and that its caseload has declined, it is nonetheless solving nearly 20 percent fewer cases.

According to records I obtained from the department, nearly 93 percent of all burglaries and 63 percent of all violent crimes go unsolved.
In 2013, HPD averaged just 1.5 arrests for violent crimes for each officer on the force.

The total number of cases solved was the lowest in six years, notwithstanding that the investigative staff has increased by 50 percent during that time.

I also noted some issues in the department’s budget that I found troubling and for which taxpayers, who will bear the cost, deserve an explanation. For example, in the past six years, the “Chief’s Command Staff” has gone from 170 employees with a budget of $21 million to a proposed 2015 budget calling for 269 employees and a budget of over $34 million.

During the same time, a new cost center – presumably, a new, recurring line item on the budget – called “Chief of Staff” was added with the proposed 2015 budget. This new cost center, with an $18 million tab, calls for 153 employees.

I also questioned why, out of 5,200 officers, only 4,100 were assigned to patrol or investigation.

These all seemed like pretty fair questions to which taxpayers are entitled answers. I expected that the department would not like these questions, but I thought, at least, it might provide some answers or an explanation.

The response I received was something I never would have contemplated in a million years. The chief complained to my editor that the column was a racist slap directed at him personally.

The basis of his allegation was that I had used as a lead-in to the story an account I first heard in business school 40 years ago about a vendor buying watermelons for more than he was selling them. As the tale goes, the vendor concluded that to make more money, he would need a bigger truck.

The point of the story is that simply throwing more resources at an unsound business model or organization will not solve its problems.
Obviously, the story could have been told about any commodity. Why it has traditionally been told with watermelons, I have no idea.

I did do a quick check on Google and found scores of references to the story in business journals and even in the popular media, including a column in the Huffington Post.

None of the retellings of the story took place in a racial context.

Nonetheless, it is true that watermelons have been used as a symbol to stereotype, insult and demean African-Americans. And I truly regret if the chief or anyone else interpreted my retelling of this story in this context because that certainly was not my intent.

Anyone who knows me and my involvement in this community and the way I have run the businesses in which I have been involved knows I would never intentionally make a derogatory racial remark or reference.

Candidly, the connection between the business school story and the racially charged use of watermelons never crossed my mind. Nor did it raise concerns from a number of editors and writers who read the column before publication.

But the incident is a powerful illustration of how we all come to the civic discourse with our own history and experiences.

It is a reminder that we all need to be more sensitive, not just to what we intend to say, but also how others may hear and interpret what we say. I certainly intend to do so.

I read Bill’s column back on June 8 and I didn’t find it racially offensive, but then I am not of the African American persuasion. I still find it a stretch but oh well.

The Tigers visit The Yard next week. Name the first Tiger pitcher to win the AL Cy Young Award.

HCC Trustee Dave Wilson doesn’t want HCC to participate in the Pride Parade. What else is news?

Denny McLain of course won the 1968 AL Cy Young award after going 31-6.

We’ve now lost three in a row. Come on guys!

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