Thursday, July 22, 2021

Murders in Texas increased 37% statewide in 2020, with Republican-led communities suffering the biggest spikes. But overdose deaths doubled murders. Are we focused on the wrong problems?

Much attention has been given to the nationwide murder spike, but Texans were more than twice as likely to die from a drug overdose in 2020 than to be murdered. And like murders, overdose deaths saw a big increase during the pandemic. "More than 4,000 Texans died of drug overdoses in the year ending Nov. 30, 2020 – a 33% increase compared to the previous year," reported Libby Seline at the Houston Chronicle.

By contrast, DPS reported 1,403 homicides statewide in 2019, and 1,927 in 2020. While that's a big increase - 37% statewide, and not at all concentrated in Austin and Houston, as the Governor would have you believe - it still means overdose deaths are killing far more Texans than murderers.

Republicans are pointing to the murder spike to call for massive increases in police spending and regressive changes to the state's bail system, even though there's  no evidence that higher police department budgets or limits on charitable bail organizations will stop these murders (Abbott's pet projects). 

By contrast, there are proven policies that reduce drug overdose deaths. One is reminded at this point that Gov. Abbott in 2015 vetoed Good Samaritan legislation that would have let people who call 911 when someone overdoses on illegal drugs avoid criminal charges. The following year, 1,257 Texans died from overdoses; since then the number has ballooned to more than 4,000! Local programs launched and funded last year in Austin were aimed directly at reducing overdose deaths, sending paramedics instead of police to respond. (Then-Chief Manley had insisted his officers would not administer naloxone to overdose victims, declaring EMS should play that role.) But before we could see the results, Abbott pushed through a law to punish Austin for its public-safety budget choices. Apparently, some dead sons and daughters are more important to the governor than others.

And what Abbott thinks, regrettably, has a lot more to do with what the MSM deems "news" than the relative death counts. While Seline's story is the first we're hearing of last year's overdose death increase, how many stories have we seen on the murder spike in this or that city, usually based only on a partial year's worth of data, and WITHOUT acknowledging the statewide numbers?

Before this blog post, I've been unable to find anyone reporting Texas' 2020 statewide murder totals in the press: Google the topic and nearly all the stories involve city-level analyses, at most. (To be fair, the statewide "Crime in Texas" report from DPS for 2020 hasn't been published yet; I found the 1,927 number in a DPS report on border crime.)

No matter how you slice it, the statewide murder increase last year was far too big to attribute to Democrat-led cities alone. Even Houston, which saw its murder total spike by more than 100, can't explain more than a fraction of the increase. Like overdoses, this was something that happened everywhere in the state. It would not be unreasonable, in fact, for voters think the governor should be held to account for that. But that hasn't happened because skewed press coverage handed Abbott a megaphone to attack his enemies instead of vetting his claims. To their credit, the Texas Tribune pushed back on this meme, and now, finally, a few outlets are joining in. But the damage has been done.

Some days I think the media beating the drums about homicides while downplaying or ignoring much greater public health/safety risks reveals a partisan agenda; others, I think it's an economic one. Texas' lapdog press may be mostly content to recycle misleading and politicized crime headlines because the MSM's business model has been built on sensationalizing crime for more than a century

But this year, in this election cycle, there's a new level of hyperbole. Governor Abbott and his local acolytes want to blame leaders in Austin for murder increases, but the capital city, with more than a million people living here, had just 19 more murders in 2020 than it did the year before. That's tragic, but by comparison, Texas saw murders increase statewide by 524 last year on the Governor's watch, and Republican-led cities like Fort Worth and Lubbock saw much bigger percentage increases than Austin (e.g.: murders increased 60% in Fort Worth, whose population is slightly smaller than Austin's, from 70 to 112; in Lubbock, which is a quarter of Austin's size, murders spiked 105%, from 20 to 41.)

You'd almost think the demagoguery about Austin was a smokescreen so no one would ask about murder increases statewide under Republican leadership, much less overdose deaths and how much Abbott's policies (and veto) contributed to them. 

In reality, murder and overdose deaths - which increased in both Democratic and Republican-controlled cities and counties - appear to be things which are IRL unaffected by your party of choice. They aren't partisan problems, they don't lend themselves to partisan solutions, and when the media and government leaders insist on considering them through a partisan frame, it makes the situation much more stupid and untenable.


Anonymous said...

That's unintentional overdoses, right?

The other one is suicide - Travis, eg, is something like 150/year, way more than homicide or even transportation fatalities.

Anonymous said...

The Texas lege is ALWAYS focusing on the wrong thing aren't they?
Every day that goes by without a viable Democrat in the race for governor compounds the dread I feel for what level of hellscape is in store for us beyond 2022.

Unknown said...

"Republican-led communities "?!? Lol. Right. Like Houston and San Antonio. Pffft. How did you even type that with a straight face?

Anonymous said...

I've been doing some research on the impact increasing patrol officers has on murder rates historically, and I've only found a few articles that show a positive correlation between increased patrol officers and lower murder rates (and, in some cases, lower arrest rates as well). Can you recommend any good sources that say something different?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@7/23, no like Fort Worth and Lubbock. Did you read the post?

E.g., the increase in murders in San Antonio from 2019 to 2020 was 21, the SAME as the increase in much smaller Lubbock. If a city with more than a million people and a city of 230,000 both have an increase of 21 murders, which has the bigger crime problem? ​For my money, I'd say the one led by Rs out in the South Plains.

@9:33, start here.

Sam said...

When you say “Republican-led” are you just referring to the mayor of the city for that singular distinction? One would also need to account for the district attorney and sheriff, plus (in a lesser sense) the commissioner’s court and city council majority for the respective areas? If the DA’s office possesses a high refusal rate of cases to keep his/her conviction rate high, I’m sure some of those dismissed cases elevate to more serious offenses and or attribute to overdoses.

On overdose deaths, how does the decriminalization efforts of drugs affect overdoses? Makes drugs more available or not?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@Sam, mainly looking at the mayor and countywide officials. Houston, Austin, SA, Dallas and El Paso in my book are D-led, Lubbock, Fort Worth, Midland-Odessa, Texarkana, etc., R-led. There aren't many ticket-splitting counties; generally the party of mayors winning citywide races in the county seat corresponds to the party holding other countywide offices like DA.

I'd say "decriminalization" has no relation to overdose deaths bc it hasn't happened (except, de facto, for pot, on which ppl don't OD). The death increase here is a consequence of prohibition, because the black-market delivers an unsafe, unregulated product and enforcement efforts 50 years into the War on Drugs have utterly and profoundly failed by any metric you can name.