The growing spiral of Houston murders, up 15 percent so far this year after a staggering 25 percent hike in 2015, has forced Houston police to spend $2 million in overtime to deploy scores of extra officers at hot spots across the city.
With a focus on gangs, narcotics and domestic violence, senior police officials have begun conducting weekly reviews to determine if the surge is reducing shootings and other major crimes.
The increasing violence was evident in Houston last week with Monday’s mass shooting, in which police killed a local attorney after he unleashed a fusillade of gunfire that wounded six. It overshadowed two other shootings the same day, the fatal robbery of Juan Daniel Hernandez Rivas, 23, gunned down in the parking lot of his apartment, and a woman shot and killed by her husband in what he said was an accidental discharge.
On Thursday, police were called to another apartment complex where a man returning from an out-of-town trip found his roommate shot dead on the floor, the same day one of four men shot earlier in a city park died of his wounds.
Mayor Sylvester Turner said that when he noticed homicide numbers increasing earlier this year, he and acting Houston Police Chief Martha Montalvo marshaled more police resources, including community agencies, and assigned more officers to the streets to confront the problem.
“I authorized several actions including an extra $2 million for police overtime, an additional cadet class, the shifting of 175 officers from desk jobs to the streets and a crackdown on gangs and Kush,” or synthetic marijuana, Turner said in a statement Friday. “At the same time, we are utilizing My Brother’s Keeper, Turnaround Houston and the Hire Houston Youth programs to address the dissatisfaction and unemployment that can lead to crime.”
“We have to fight it.”
The mayor and other analysts expressed difficulty in determining the reason Houston murders are on such a dramatic upswing. Last year’s tally of 303 murders exceeded those in Los Angeles and Philadelphia and represented a significant spike over the 198 murders in 2011.
“It’s hard to say exactly why we are seeing this increase,” Turner said. “What I do know is that we have to fight it on many fronts. Hopefully, we will begin to see the numbers change by the end of the year.”
At the Brennan Center for Justice, part of New York University’s law school, researchers examining crime data predict that while murder is expected to decline in 12 of the 30 largest American cities this year, Houston and others are in store for more carnage.
The center has predicted that murders will rise in 2016 by 13 percent, with big increases expected in Chicago, San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, San Diego and San Jose, Calif. Houston is expected to finish the year with 345 murders, substantially higher than the 303 murders recorded here last year.
The unincorporated areas of Harris County outside of Houston city limits also have experienced a hike in murders, which went from 68 in 2014 to 89 last year, a 30 percent increase. The Houston Police Department reported a clearance rate of 60 percent last year, meaning it closed 6 in 10 murder investigations. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office, by contrast, reported a clearance rate of 39 percent.
The NYU researchers say possible theories about the sudden spikes in murder include long-term socioeconomic conditions, the numbers of police officers available in a city and strained relations between the police and the communities they patrol.
They hastened to add that the nation’s crime is not “out of control” and will remain at historic lows. They also said the dramatic rise in murders in some big cities calls for urgent measures to control the violence.
Ames Grawert, an attorney for Brennan Center, said cities such as Chicago and Houston can have very affluent areas but still have neighborhoods where crime develops because of festering socioeconomic conditions.
“The key takeaway for us is when you look at increasing violent crime it’s not a national issue. It’s an issue concentrated in a few cities, and in some cities in a few neighborhoods in particular with higher than average unemployment and poverty.”
Hiring more officers
Grawert noted that police staffing also plays a role in crime, and cities that beef up their police presence can affect crime.
“In Chicago, we saw they had fewer police officers than in past years, and one thing Chicago recently announced is they are hiring more officers to confront this problem,” he said. “That’s a good solution, because whether you’re Democrat or Republican, we can agree good police doing good work can bring down crime.”
Houston police, without providing specific numbers, pointed to gang activity as a factor in the murders.
“HPD analysis has shown many of the homicides have a gang and narcotic element,” HPD said in an statement Friday.
About 16 percent of murders are the result of family violence that involves “drugs, alcohol and mental illness,” the statement said. “For these types of murders HPD is seeking to create a program that allows the department to partner with agencies that can assist in educating and outreaching to at-risk families.”
Academic experts who study crime and sociology said it is too early to definitely say what is triggering the rise in Houston murders, although some have hunches.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a similar type of phenomena that we had in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when there was an increase in violence and homicides in young people under 21, especially African-Americans, who were involved in gangs dealing in crack cocaine,” said Clete Snell, professor of criminal justice at the University of Houston-Downtown. “I wouldn’t be surprised if the same thing was going on now.”
“Young person’s game”
Texas recorded 1,314 murders in 2015, an increase of nearly 11 percent. The rate of rape, robbery and aggravated assault also increased, while all categories of property crime dropped, including burglary and auto theft, according to a review of state crime data by the Texas Department of Public Safety.
“The decrease in the overall index crime rate for 2015 is positive news for our state; however, it is concerning that at the same time Texas has again experienced an increase in the rate of violent crimes,” according to a statement in the report from DPS Director Steven McCraw.
DPS spokesman Tom Vinger, asked last week about increasing murders, said gangs affiliated with Mexican drug cartels play a role in the rise of violent crime.
“A continuing trend is that gangs represent a significant public safety threat to the state of Texas, and are responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime in our communities, including violent crime,” Vinger said. “MS-13, for example, has become known for their brutality and executions – and are active in recruiting youths, who are drawn in by the narco-culture and money.”
He added: “While transnational gangs are still heavily involved in the drug smuggling business, they are also increasingly involved in heinous criminal activity like human and sex trafficking because of the higher profits and lower perceived risk.”
Sociologists have long recognized that a youthful population, coupled with economic inequality, are factors that drive violent crime, said Robert Werth, a lecturer in the Rice University Department of Sociology. Census figures show about 300,000 Houston residents are between 15 and 24. Houston’s median age is 30.9, lower than the state average.
“Demographically, crime is a young person’s game,” Werth said. “One of the biggest drivers of the crime rate is the age demographics of the population. Just statistically, the larger the population in the age range of 16 to 26, the higher your crime rate is going to be because that age group commits crimes at a higher rate that any other age group.”
Influx of new residents
Tim Mordecai, a Harris County sheriff’s deputy who has patrolled county streets for more than two decades, said he believes the increase of murders coincides with an influx of new residents, many who have moved from crime-ridden cities in other parts of the nation.
“It’s everybody who is moving here, and they are bringing their crime with them,” he said. “I’m going by the people who I have to contend with.”
Story provided by Houston Chronicle.
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