Recent polls show that most Houstonians feel that crime is the most pressing problem we face as a community today. Also, the media daily floods our papers and televisions with accounts of what seems to be rampant crime. Because of this concern, I decided to get the crime statistics for the last eight years to see what the actual numbers looked like. I filed an Open Records request with the Houston Police Department (HPD) for its annual reports to the FBI and then analyzed some of the most significant data from those in an Excel spreadsheet. The following is a summary of that data. You can review the actual reports at
and the spreadsheet at
HPD Summary Crime Reports
A review of this data helps us to understand some of the public’s concern about crime. In laying out these data, I am not suggesting that anyone or any organization is to blame or responsible for these conditions. The incidence of crime is due to many complicated factors. Many of the reasons crime ebbs and surges is not in the control of the police or local officials. However, I think that if we are to rationally address this problem, the first thing we need to do is to understand where we are. I would be curious to hear your thoughts on these statistics and what actions you think they suggest we should be taking.
Crime “Rates” vs. Total Number of Crimes
When officials discuss crime statistics they will typically refer to crime “rates.” The crime
is derived by dividing the actual number of crimes by the population. Typically, crime rates are stated in the number of incidents per 100,000 of population. For example, in 2007 there were 24,574 violent crimes committed in Houston. The official estimated population for 2007 was 2,231,335. The violent crime rate was 1,101.3, calculated as follows:
24,574 ÷ (2,231,335 ÷ 100,000) = 1,101.3
Therefore, the crime rate is not only affected by the actual number of crimes committed but also any change in population from year to year. It is important to note that the population is only “counted” every 10 years when the U.S. Census is conducted. In the intervening years official estimates are used. Both the crime rate and the total number of actual crimes are important indicators. Clearly, as any city grows, the total number of crimes committed is also likely to grow. If the total number of crimes remains the same or even increases, but at a rate slower than population is growing, that would indicate some success in reducing crime.
A review of recent crime rate trends must be set against a larger historical perspective. Crime rates in the U.S., and especially violent crime rates, have been dramatically declining since the 1970s. For example, in 1980, 654 murders were committed in Houston. Our population at that time was about 1.6 million, resulting in a murder rate of about 41 per 100,000 residents. By 2001, murders in Houston had dropped by over 60% to 230. However, during that same time our population had grown to just under 2 million, resulting in a murder rate under 12, a 70% decline.
However, the crime rate in Houston appears not to have declined over the last several decades as rapidly as it has in most other large U.S. cities. As a result, at least according to the FBI reports, Houston now compares unfavorably with these cities. In 2006, Houston ranked No. 3 in violent crimes among the ten largest cities in the U.S. and No. 4 in property crimes. Houston’s violent crime rate was 48% higher than Los Angeles and 83% higher than New York City. It should be noted that these comparisons come from reports filed by local police departments with the FBI. It is possible that there are significant differences in the way the data is collected and reported from one city to the next which could result in overstating or understating comparisons. For a number of reasons, HPD feels strongly that the comparisons to New York or Los Angeles, in particular, are not “apples to apples” comparisons.
Recent Uptick in Crime
The decline in crime
(i.e. per capita rates) in Houston bottomed out around 2001. Since then crime rates in most categories have experienced modest increases, with some indications of a small improvement in 2007. Mayor White has recently stated in several speeches that the violent crime rate has declined by 8% during his administration. Many people I have talked to have expressed surprise that violent crime has declined in recent years. The disconnect may have to do with the difference between the crime
and the total number of crimes. Mayor White is correct in his statement that the violent crime
has declined. As the chart below shows, in 2003, the last year of the Brown administration, the violent crime rate was 1,185. By 2007, that rate had declined to 1,101, an 8% decrease, with most of the improvement coming in 2007.
While a reduction in the violent crime rate is an important indication of some improvement, as shown by the following chart, the actual number of violent crimes increased substantially in 2001 and 2002, eased somewhat in 2003 and 2004, but has steadily risen since then. The significant reduction in the 2007 violent crime rate was the result not of total violent crimes decreasing but rather from a significant increase in the estimated Houston population (2,085,000 to 2,231,000).
Troubling Trend in Robbery & Burglary
In some crimes, such as murder, the victim and the perpetrator are frequently acquainted. In fact, often they are related. However, robbery is a crime that almost always occurs between strangers and it places the life of the victim in jeopardy. It is normally a random crime of opportunity catching the victim when he or she is most off guard. Similarly, burglaries compromise the security of our homes or businesses. Burglaries that occur at night when the family is at home are particularly frightening. As a result, robbery and burglary are among the crimes we find most threatening. As shown in the chart below, over the last eight years, we have seen a troubling increase in the robbery rate, rising from 425 in 2000 to 514 in 2007, a 17% increase. 2007 showed a significant improvement over the 2006 rate of 582, however the 2007 rate was still 27% higher than 2000.
The actual number of robberies has risen at a fairly steady pace, increasing 28% over the eight year period. Most of that increase occurred between 2000 and 2002.
A similar pattern is seen in burglaries. The per capita burglary rate in Houston increased substantially in 2001-2002 and has held fairly steady since then.
The actual number of burglaries has been on a steady increase since 2000, with 2007 registering the largest increase (2,175) during the eight-year period.
Overall Rates Not as Bad
The silver lining in these reports is that the overall crime rates have held fairly steady. The FBI reports are divided into two general categories. There is a group of serious offenses they categorize as “Part I” offenses. “Part II” offenses are less serious. In looking at both the Part I offenses and the total of all offenses, the rates topped out in 2002 and have steadily declined ever since, posting the largest reduction in 2007.
(Note: The “All Crimes Rate” includes some factors that may cause anomalous results. For example, some officers I have talked to indicated that if they had the time, they could make thousands more DUI arrests. The same is true of minor drug offenses. Therefore, to some extent, the enforcement practices of HPD drive the number of the Part II offenses.)
Alarming “Clearance” Rates
Probably the most alarming statistic in these reports is something referred to as the “clearance” rate. As a general proposition, this number represents the number of cases in which a suspect is arrested and charged with a crime. A small number of cases are closed for other reasons, such as the alleged victim withdrawing their complaint. Also, this statistic does not track whether that person is ultimately convicted; that is, whether the right person was arrested. But in a loose sense it represents those cases which HPD considers “solved.” The following chart tracks the clearance rates for this eight-year period for all violent crimes. First, I found it fairly depressing that the best rate achieved over the eight year period was less than 40%. Even more depressing is the fact that the clearance rate for violent crimes has steadily gone down, reaching a low of 24% in 2005. The rate has only slightly improved since.
But the clearance rate for robbery and burglary, two crimes most of us find most problematic, are truly abysmal. In 2000 only 24% of robberies were solved. By 2005, that rate had sunk to 16% with marginal improvement in 2006 and 2007.
Amazingly, throughout the eight-year period, over 92% of all burglaries were never solved.
The clearance for all crimes shows a similar story, with the vast majority of crimes going unsolved. One glimmer of good news is that the rate improved in 2007 for the first time in three years. An interesting question is how these rates compare to other cities. Hopefully, we will be able to track that information down.
Police District Data on the Way
The City is divided into about a dozen police districts. When we got the crime reports from HPD for the entire City, we also got them for each police district. We are in the process of inputting that data and plan to send out an e-mail in the next few weeks analyzing how crime is dispersed around the City.
I think these data show why crime is on the minds of citizens in our community. I think it also suggests that we have a great deal of work to do. Most of you are probably aware that the HPD is severely undermanned by any objective standard. The Iraq war has diminished the number of young people leaving the military which is normally a major source of HPD recruits. The investigative ranks have been particularly hard hit with a large number of officers retiring in the last several years. I think there is also general agreement that we inherited some of New Orleans’ crime problems in the Katrina evacuation.
Nonetheless, there are reasons for some optimism as indicated by the improvement in some categories of crime in 2007. The Mayor announced a plan to add 500 new officers over the next several years and established special Crime Reduction Units that aggressively police problem areas. Also, it appears that most of the New Orleans’ gangs that transplanted here for a while have decided to go home. However, more must be done. Public safety is the basic and essential element of our quality of life. Further the unfavorable comparisons readily accessible on the Internet between the crime rates in Houston and other major cities do nothing to enhance our community’s image nationally. Addressing this problem is job one!