Monday, August 03, 2009

Disconnects in debate over Houston crime and policing policy

Here's an odd disconnect in recent media coverage about the relationship between the number of police officers on patrol in Houston and crime rates in America's fourth largest city:

When the Obama Administration denied Houston's request for 240 new officers under the COPS grant program (discussed on Grits here and here), Houston Mayor Bill White said, "We were told that Houston did not receive funding because our city budget is not distressed and our crime rates have gone down to the lowest levels in decades. Cities should not be penalized for good law enforcement and sound financial practices."

That didsn't sound so grave. Just a few days later, though, in yesterday's Houston Chronicle we get a story titled "Houston's crime outpaces officers," portraying Houston PD as critically understaffed to the point that it risks launching an immediate crime wave:

“There's no doubt that there's going to be a spike in crime as a result of this,” said Gary Blankinship, president of the Houston Police Officers Union. “We have to learn to work smarter and try to use technology a little bit more, but some hard decisions may have to be made and some other city budgets may have to be looked at. Tough times cause people to have to make tough decisions.”

So which are we to believe? Does Houston have a relatively low need for additional officers because of declining crime and large numbers of recent cadet classes, or is there a looming crisis that would require a 30% staffing increase at a cost of $200 million to remedy? I don't know the answer, but it's fascinating to see such widely disparate assessments.

Adding to the confusion, another fascinating disconnect is that people are more concerned about crime in Houston, even though crime has declined to its lowest point in decades:
Houstonians, according to polling data, are as concerned about crime as ever. Nearly three quarters of residents interviewed in 2008 for Rice University's annual Houston Area Survey said they were “somewhat worried” or “very worried” they or a family member will become a crime victim. That is higher than any year since the mid-'90s, a time only a few years removed from when Houston had more than 500 murders annually and some of the highest crime rates in the country.
Here's an hypothesis: Perhaps the reason Houstonians are more concerned about crime than a fact-based assessment might dictate is that they're receiving messages constantly through the media that police don't have the resources to do the job, even though "crime rates have gone down to the lowest levels in decades."


Anonymous said...


I like the part of the Chronicle article where they point out that funding for the Houston Police increased 40%, $200 Million per year, over the last five years. That's an extra BILLION dollars and we have fewer officers than five years ago. Ridiculous! Who do you believe? The we need more money crowd, or the lowest crime in decades folks? I really don't know.


Anonymous said...

"That, [Hurtt] said, would bring the city's staffing levels to about 3 officers per 1,000 residents, the average among other major U.S. cities. Right now, there are about 2.3 officers per 1,000 Houstonians."

2.3 is a bogus number. Here's why. Houston has numerous policing agencies that take responsibility for large segments of the population at various locations and times. Houston ISD handles the crimes committed by thousands of students during the hours of 7 to 3 (ballpark) and all of their property. UT police handle the UT medical properties 24 hours a day. Metro handles transit line crime, including on-board, on street, and at stops. Constables cover areas all over Houston, including fulfilling patrol functions in some areas of the city. They also handle the toll roads in the city. An accurate comparison can't be done against other communities unless this is taken into consideration. Dallas may have DART police but other cities, for example, don't have transit cops. Point is it is only a PR number brought up to increase staffing - but you knew that already. It would just be nice to have accurate figures before going into debt.

Anonymous said...

Local media coverage of crime is why people are so concerned despite lower crime rates. If you watch the 10'0 clock news you think you are in a war zone.

Charlie O said...

"Cities should not be penalized for good law enforcement and sound financial practices."

This quote is hilarious. If Houston has good law enforcement and sound financial practices, then why the heck do they NEED money for more police? Doesn't it make sense to this pinhead that the money should be allocated to places that DON'T have good law enforcement? It's all gimme, gimme, gimme in this country today. To hell with the other guy who's actually in need.

That's why (I know, off topic) we can't get REAL health care reform passed. There's no compassion left in America. "I got mine, the rest of you can go to hell."

Bradley Olson said...

Grits, This is Brad Olson from the Chronicle. Good questions as always. I can see why the events seemed like a disconnect, but the reality is that both things are actually true: Houston's crime rates are down compared to previous years, yet violent crime is still to be pretty high compared to other U.S. cities and are the highest among other cities in Texas (our data is here if anyone wants to see:

Mark # 1 said...

Thanks for the appearance and input, Mr. Olsen.

Hook Em Horns said...

I am not sure how many law enforcement jurisdictions cover Houston. I am sure there are several. When you take into consideration all the Constables, Sheriff's deputies, the Metro Bus Police, the HISD police and I am sure there are some I have forgotten, we HAVE PLENTY OF COPS! The last thing we need is another cop.

OH, and don't forget the DEA, FBI, DPS, CIA, ICE, INS, IRS and God knows who else has enforcement authority over "we the people".


Gritsforbreakfast said...

Bradley, there are some data problems with comparing UCR data across cities because they don't all report the same things and some (like Dallas) underreport.

Also, the Obama administration was comparing Houston to other cities and according to Mayor White thought y'all were in relatively good shape.

The other disconnect, of course, whether ANY changes in crime rate have anything to do with staffing at all or whether they're driven by other factors. There seemed to be an underlying assumption in your story that staffing and crime rates are somehow linked, but personally I don't believe that's necessarily true.

Thanks for the response!

Anonymous said...

Grits, I agree with you. Crime rates are not linked with the number of Police. The actual crime prevention activities of Police represent a very small portion of their work.

For one thing, they spend a lot of time doing paperwork to support all the statistics. I also do not believe statisctis that are currently reported accurately represent the true crime rates. Lots of "crimes" happen and the Police are never called.

In any event, the data are all we have and we should be extremely careful when attempting to understand what it means.

Anonymous said...

We're paying more for each cop now because of Mayor Brown and Chief Bradley. They underpaid into teh pension plan for years, and passed the cost on to Mayor White. When he took office and discovered the financial problem the retirement fund was in, he fixed it., But that meant higher costs.

Mayor Brown should be shot.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, Bob Lanier ought to be whacked as well; he came up with the nonsense of the 'metro general mobility' transfers which had metro borrowing money to pass on to CoH so CoH could play fast and loose with its traditional prop tax fueled revenue streams and general fund expenditures.

Several years ago there was a tally made of all the 'law enforcing' entities in Harris County, it was astonishing but damned if I can remember which news outlet did the story.

And of course, stats such as 'cops per capita' or per sq mi are ridiculous. Cops do not prevent crime, they take reports and chalk the pavement where you were felled.

Anonymous said...

The way I look at it.Those folks don't need another dime or cop. They have screwed up everything there is to screw up with thier police lab.People can't get those years back they spent in prison.Guilt by association for the whole department.It is time for no tolerence on corrupt police department's.