Is crime up or down? In Houston, worries are hard to dispel

Political ads on the airwaves and social media in the nation’s fourth-largest city paint a picture of Houston as a failed state where crime is out of control and violent criminals have free rein.

The political discussion of crime even reached the pulpit, with popular megachurch pastor Ed Young calling Houston “the most dangerous city in America” ​​and telling congregants that if the city, which is run by Democrats, “to survive, we had They better kick those bums out of the office.

September statistics actually showed a 3% drop in homicides and a 10% drop in overall violent crime compared to the same month last year, as noted by Houston Police Chief Troy Finner, at a town hall last month, trying to reassure residents that things are looking up.

But Finner, acknowledging the concerns raised at the meeting, noted that crime is still “not where we want it to be.”

The debate in the Houston area mirrors similar discussions across the country about public safety, as violent crime rates appear to have leveled off somewhat but are still above pre-pandemic levels. The issue has become a line of attack ahead of the midterm elections, largely from Republican candidates who cast Democrats as soft on crime.

In Harris County, the reliably Democratic home of Houston, top elected official, Democrat Lina Hidalgo, finds herself in a tough re-election bid when her Republican opponent and some members of law enforcement blame her policies for rates. of criminality and state Republican officials accuse her of “defunding.” police.

Criminal justice experts say understanding recent crime trends remains challenging, politicization must be avoided, and solutions are not simple.

“You can’t hire enough officers to stop the problem you have in a city. You have to take a holistic approach. You have to engage the community,” said Howard Henderson, founder of the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University in Houston.

Other cities having similar discussions include New Orleans, where officials and civic groups are debating how to combat a spike in violent crime, and Portland, Oregon, which has struggled to respond to street violence.

In Houston, as elsewhere, the debate has become politicized and sometimes frantic.

At a Texas legislative committee meeting in Austin this month, Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association, suggested, without offering evidence, that many Harris County misdemeanor defendants were part of major unions. who wanted to commit more crimes.

Ray Hunt of the Houston Police Officers Union warned at a recent meeting in Houston among Harris County officials that if no more officers and prosecutors are approved, “this county is finished.”

The warning came as crime in Houston appears to be on a downward trend after more than two years of sharp increases during the pandemic and inflationary pressures.

From 2019 to 2021, homicides in the county increased 59%, with the majority of cases in Houston, according to state data. However, other crimes (burglary, robbery and larceny) have decreased in the last two years.

“Almost everywhere has seen an increase in murders since 2019,” said Jeff Asher, a crime analyst.

To complicate matters, the county’s court system was overwhelmed by a backlog of criminal cases that began after Houston was hit by Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and was exacerbated by the pandemic.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has promoted a holistic approach to crime reduction through the One Safe Houston initiative. The $53 million program has provided money for police overtime, mental health services, domestic violence response and gun buybacks.

In August, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar accused Harris County officials of violating a state law that prevents “defunding” the police, a phrase that refers to reallocating some police funds to other priorities than underlying crime, such as mental well-being and unemployment, but which are sometimes misrepresented as the abolition of the police.

Hegar accused the county of not allowing agents to reinvest unspent funds.

The law, which was passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature and applies to Texas’ most populous counties, most of which are run by Democrats, requires officials to hold an election if a budget reduces or reallocates funds. for law enforcement.

“We need more funding. … We need boots on the ground,” Harris County Precinct 4 Sheriff Mark Herman said this month.

Brittany Cheek, 29, said she was thankful county officials last month cleared a parcel in her neighborhood of trash and an abandoned mobile home that had been turned into a drug haven. But she is still worried about the crime.

Residents’ concerns shouldn’t be dismissed, Henderson said, but the media and politicians should do a better job of giving the public a correct picture of what’s affecting public safety.

Harris County’s bail reform efforts, part of a court settlement that ensures most misdemeanor defendants don’t stay in jail because they’re poor, have also been blamed for rising crime.

Brandon Garrett, a law professor at Duke University and one of the monitors for a consent decree that settled the lawsuit, defended Harris County’s bail efforts, saying, “You can protect people’s rights and achieve safety.” public at the same time. It’s not compensation.”

Hidalgo said the county’s latest budget proposes $100 million in new funding for law enforcement. But passage of that budget is on hold, in part because of calls from two Republican commissioners for more officers.

Southeast Houston resident Leroy West, 67, said he is against cutting police budgets in a way that jeopardizes public safety.

“I am in favor of taking some of those funds and addressing social issues, mental health issues. If we take care of this from the beginning, the police don’t have to get involved in the rear,” West said while attending a crime prevention workshop last month.

At town hall with Finner, the residents seemed receptive to his assurances, but were still concerned.

East Houston resident Lisa Moore told Finner that she “is now taking an anxiety pill so she can sleep at night” after the recent shootings near her home.

Finner hugged Moore and promised her and the others that their concerns would not be ignored.

“We have to get you some sleep and some peace,” Finner said.


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