Sunday, September 15, 2019

Local press calls out Houston mayoral candidates' false statements on crime

Challengers in local political races love to engage in demagoguery about crime and try to blame the incumbents. That becomes a tad more difficult when crime is actually low. But usually they can still get away with it because the local media thinks their job is to "quote both sides" (in this case, the two sides being "lies" and "reality") and will put out their message even when it's false.

So we must give credit where it's due to St. John Barned Smith and Jasper Scherer of the Houston Chronicle for their article on crime debates in the Houston mayor's race. Drawing on lessons national journalists have had to learn in the age of Donald Trump, they wrote a piece that calls out exaggerations and falsehoods about crime in a way that's incredibly rare for local reporters.

Challengers to Mayor Sylvester Turner attempted to mislead the public about crime in the wake of his recent State of the City speech.
“I know what’s going on in this city,” [millionaire attorney Tony] Buzbee said. “Don’t tell me crime is going down when everybody across the country knows that Houston is one of the most dangerous cities in the United States.” 
Bill King, another prominent mayoral contender, has decried a “growing randomness and violence to crime that alarms people.”
The next paragraph, though, let's us know that these reporters have learned a lesson or two about lying politicians that makes your correspondent a bit more sanguine about the profession:
While experts say such arguments aren’t unusual for political challengers, the numbers largely say otherwise. Like the rest of the country, crime in Houston has plummeted over the last 30 years, as has residents’ fear of crime being the city’s most pressing problem. FBI data show that most categories of crime in Houston have fallen or remained stagnant during Turner’s term, which began in January 2016. Criminologists also scoff at the claim that Houston is among the country’s most dangerous cities.
During Turner's term, in fact, "From 2015 to 2018, murders dropped and robberies fell; burglaries decreased; thefts fell; and fewer vehicles were stolen. The exceptions were aggravated assaults and rapes, which rose in 2017 before declining again in 2018." On Buzbee's campaign website, by contrast, he insists without a shred of evidence, "All types of crime are on the rise." That's patently false.

Indeed, your correspondent was quoted in the story declaring, "“We are at the bottom of a 30-year decline, more or less, in the crime rate,” and insisting, “Houston is safer than has been for a really long time, honestly, is the truth of it."

Buzbee says that Houston has more crime than 95% of American cities, which is true, but misleading. Heck, since Houston is the third largest city and there are nearly 20,000 municipalities in the United States, I'd have said more than 99%. But that's a meaningless number. Comparing crime totals in Houston to those in Dalhart or Raymondville is a silly and pointless exercise. The article quoted national experts to give context to the claim:
“When we talk about the murder capitals of the country, the violent crime capitals of the country, Houston is not one of the cities people put on that list,” said Jeff Asher, a New Orleans-based criminologist. “At least anyone familiar with the data.” 
Ames Grawert, senior counsel for the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, said it is misleading to compare the crime rate of a city with 2.3 million people to those of small towns, which frequently have much lower crime rates. 
A more accurate measure, he said, would be to look at other large cities across the country. 
Among the nation’s 30 largest cities, Houston’s murder rate “is thoroughly middle of the road,” Grawert said. “I don’t see Houston as being one of the more ‘violent’ places in the country.”
Buzbee insisted that, if he were mayor, Houston would add 2,000 police officers to the force (currently with a little more than 5,000 officers), over his first four years. Mayor Turner, by contrast, has suggested adding 500.

Buzbee's suggestion is simply ridiculous (and thus, demagogic) to anyone who understands municipal budgets. The Legislature just capped spending increases by municipalities, so adding that many officers would require eliminating spending on things like roads and flood control. There's no math that makes the suggestion work, it's just silly on its face.

By contrast, Turner's other opponent had a more legitimate criticism:
King contended HPD’s increase in sworn officers under Turner is “window dressing,” because the officers have to perform the functions of the declining civilian employees. Soon after taking office, Turner vowed he would never lay off any police officers.
King is right about the civilian staffing. I like Mayor Turner and was a fan of his when he was in the Legislature. But even then, he has always been in the pocket of the police unions and was never comfortable bucking them. King is right that the decision to lay off civilian staff instead of cops was short-sighted. Having more expensive, uniformed officers provide clerical and support functions is wasteful, bad management.

That's why, when Dallas hired management consultants to tell them how many more officers to hire, they couldn't get a hard number. How many cops you have is less important than what those cops do. The consultants in Dallas told the city council, much to their consternation, that they needed to hire more civilians and reorganize officer duties before considering hiring more cops. If the same analysis were performed for Houston, I believe they'd find that's the case there, too. 

In Austin, where Houston chief Art Acevedo was posted before becoming chief in H-Town, civilian duties were widely neglected in favor of hiring more officers. Crises at the crime lab and failures at sex-assault victim services cropped up nearly as soon as he left, and virtually every other civilian function in the agency (except the Public Information Office - he does value PR) was starved and short-shrifted during his tenure.

That said, even with this debunking, the strategy of lying about crime could still work. Survey after survey shows the public thinks crime is rising, even when it's precipitously falling. That's slowly starting to change, but it's something a demagogue can manipulate. Candidate King touched on what I think is the reason public opinion doesn't track with reality: “When you actually see a crime being committed on your computer screen, especially if it involves violence, it obviously (has) a much greater impact than reading dry crime statistics.”

Bingo! It may be hard for anyone under 50 or so to imagine, but thirty years ago, local news was local and crimes reported in the newspaper or on nightly TV news happened in the town a journalist covered. Today, crimes committed anywhere and everywhere on the globe show up in our news feeds in seemingly endless waves, giving an impression of lawlessness and danger that's just not borne out by data.

That's what Buzbee and King are counting on: that the public's ignorance and gullibility will trump reality. And it could work. As H.L. Mencken long ago advised, no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. But when the media do their job well, as for once happened here, it makes capitalizing on public ignorance a lot more difficult.


Steven Michael Seys said...

Union leaders are more interested in expanding their power base than serving the needs of the people who are not members of the union. You will always hear police union leaders demand more uniformed officers because that means more union dues to spend wastefully and more political clout at the legislature. Serving the needs of the community requires sifting through the cacophony of voices for the few who have the needs of the community in mind. Who said the job of a politician is easy?

Anonymous said...

"Buzbee says that Houston has more crime than 95% of American cities, which is true, but misleading. Heck, since Houston is the third largest city and there are nearly 20,000 municipalities in the United States, I'd have said more than 99%. But that's a meaningless number. Comparing crime totals in Houston to those in Dalhart or Raymondville is a silly and pointless exercise."

Buzbee is mistaken that all crimes in the city are increasing but as you point out, the city is still more crime prone than almost all other cities in the country, perhaps some voters would like to see that addressed rather than explained away or have the truth qualified by comparisons forced to other large cities. Regardless, Houston couldn't find 2000 additional candidates in the next 5 years, nor 500 on top of what it takes to cover attrition, unless it dropped all college requirements, jacked up the pay substantially, and was willing to overlook many existing qualifications that bar employment by most candidates.

As many have pointed out, aside from the use of cops as clerks, given HPD no longer enforces low level drug crimes which comprised a huge portion of what they did for years, and the current county district attorney's office refusal to accept charges on many other crimes, I'd need to see exactly how they were to be used before adding a single cop to the force. Their budget is already $900 million if you include their cadets and some 1000 civilians, adding another 2000 cops would not require cutting street repair or flooding upgrades since those are not part of the general fund's $2.5 billion, it would require completely privatizing EMS services as HFD is the only other large city department funded by the general fund, debt service and administrative costs 20% of the budget compared to the 60% for public safety.

King is no better in terms of willingness to buy votes though, despite court rulings that Prop B was unconstitutional, he wants to give HFD 30%+ pay raises yet has no means to pay for them, his other stances sounding like wishful thinking as well. The multitude of other mayoral candidates have no coherent plans either, just general platitudes designed to convince voters they could override state laws or usurp authority from other governmental bodies to pander to uninformed voters so no thanks.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

To be clear, I did not say the city is "more crime prone." I said that a city of 2 million has more crimes than Dalhart or Raymondville and looking at totals is silly. Comparing crime RATES to other large cities, H-Town is in the middle of the pack.

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