City Council okays Houston police union contract despite concerns
HPD vehicle. Image from HPD Twitter.

When Rev. Ed Young of Second Baptist Church called Houston “the most dangerous city in America,” Mayor Sylvester Turner was quick to come to his city’s defense. Young’s claim may have been a stretch, but the reality is that crime has spiked in Houston, just has it has in every other major city across the country. And officials are working overtime to address the escalating problem.

Contrary to Young’s claim, Houston is far from the most dangerous city in the country. Criminologists say Houston’s murder rate is actually in the “middle of the pack” for major American cities. In 2020, the first year of the homicide surge, Houston tallied about 17 murders per 100,000 people, less than half the rates recorded by several other large cities, including St. Louis, Baltimore, New Orleans, Detroit, Memphis and Cleveland.

Still, Houston has seen a sharp rise in homicides each of the last two years, starting with a 43% surge from 2019 to 2020 — similar to the increase measured across all of Harris County, including Houston and the other incorporated cities. Murders across the country spiked by 29% that year, as a number of large cities — including Chicago and New York — recorded increases north of 50%.

Counts of assault also rose about 30% across Harris County in 2020, while property crimes saw a slight decline, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety’s “index crimes report,” which collects data from local law enforcement. Homicides climbed  last year, from 400 to 469. 2021 marked one of the city’s deadliest years over the last three decades. Houston also surpassed Dallas for the highest murder rate among Texas’ large cities — though still well behind other big cities around the country.

Overall, Harris County law enforcement agencies tallied 632 homicides last year, a 12% increase from the previous year, according to DPS data. The uptick was driven almost entirely by murders in Houston, however, with the homicide rate in unincorporated Harris County staying flat at about 5 killings per 100,000 people.

Following back-to-back years of sharp increases, the murder rate has begun to recede in Houston and the county as a whole. And each major category of violent crime — murder, rape, robbery and assault — has declined countywide through the first half of 2022 compared to the same point last year, according to DPS data

Officials are working to combat the escalating problem, and in fact, recently received help from the Department of Justice. Houston and Harris County will receive $2 million as part of a nationwide grant program to help communities reduce gun crime and other serious violence.

Assistant Attorney General Kenneth A. Polite and U.S. Attorney Jennifer B. Lowery joined leaders from federal and local law enforcement agencies to announce a first-of-its-kind initiative targeting violent crimes in the Houston area.

“We will employ a data driven approach to first identify and then prosecute the worst of the worst gangs and gang members who are disproportionately responsible for the violent crime gripping this community,” Polite said. “Everyone should feel safe in their homes, in their neighborhoods. Unfortunately, violent crime deprives too many of our communities of that fundamental security.”

The new initiative will include prosecutors from the Criminal Division’s organized Crime and Gang section, investigative agents, analyst, forensic experts from the FBI, HPD, HCSO and more.

The Department of Justice is awarding $100 million worth of similar grants across the United States.

“Together we will work coordinated, targeted, intelligence driven efforts with our law enforcement partners,” Lowery said. “As a team, we will develop strong cases where the defendants who possess the greatest danger to threats to the community will be arrested, will not be released, and will receive significant prison sentences. But second, we’re going to educate, train and support the citizen.”

Programs include the Chance program, reentry programs, community policing and de-escalation training, as well as safeguarding communities and mentoring programs. There are also initiatives to help prevent school violence.

Experts have offered a number of theories for why the country saw such a dramatic surge in homicides. Some of the leading theories include mental and financial stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, strained police-community relations and officers taking a less proactive approach in the face of widespread scrutiny, known as de-policing.