After somewhat discouraging numbers in 2009, Houston saw a substantial downturn in crime virtually across the board in the first half of 2010.
There were 11,248 violent crimes reported in the first six months of 2010, down over 8% from the first half of 20 09 at 12,239 and similarly down from 2008 at 12,389. Every violent crime category was down including rape and robbery, both which had shown troubling increases in the last couple of years. If the current trend continues, the violent crime rate would come in at 1,000 (violent crimes per 100,000 of population), a rate far lower than anything we have seen in the last decade.
Contradicting the common belief that property crimes go up in hard economic times, all major categories of property crime were also down in the first half of 2010. Theft and burglary both reversed last year’s increases. Auto thefts continued its multi-year trend down. Auto thefts now stand at about half what they were a decade ago. This is a remarkable success and should be studied to see there are strategies employed in that area that could be used on other crimes.
Those of you who have followed my blogs on this subject know that I believe that a critical metric is the clearance rate, i.e. the percentage of reported crimes that HPD makes an arrest and for which charges are filed. Roughly speaking, it represents the percentage of crimes that are “solved.” Many academics that study crime believe that increasing the clearance rate is the best strategy for reducing crime.
From 2000-2006 clearance rates in Houston declined at a significant rate. However, beginning in 2006 and 2007, HPD began posting increases in the clearances rates. Particularly encouraging have been the improvement in the clearance rates for violent crimes.
If the current trend holds for the balance of the year, 2010’s clearance rates will be the best in decade. Improvement in the rate is a combination of an increased number of cases solved and a lower base1
. In 2009, HPD solved 9,631 violent crimes, which was highest since 2000. It is on track to slightly improve that performance this year.
The one area that continues to be problematic is burglary. It is one area that there has been very little improvement in the clearance for the last ten years and which currently stands at an abysmal 8%, meaning that 92% of the time the burglars get away scot free. It seems pretty clear that HPD is simply not applying the resources necessary to address our chronic burglary issues.
I have not found anyone that has any plausible explanation as to why the records would reflect such a sharp decline in a relatively short period. It may just be a statistical anomaly that will adjust back to historical comparisons by year end. However, it nonetheless highlights two principles I have found true in watching these numbers over the last several years.
First, crime is a multi-faceted, complex phenomenon that is not capable of being reduced to intuitive insights. It is a phenomenon that involves hundreds of thousands of actors just in our area. In such complex systems, it is always perilous to base conclusions on popular beliefs.
Second, there is no way to get a real sense of the extent of criminal activity in our society from popular media accounts. While there has been a significant and persistent decrease in crime for the 30-40 years, one study found that the media coverage about crime had increased by over 1000% during that time. If we were to judge solely from the media, we would believe there is a rampant crime wave, mostly involving illegal immigrants. However, the numbers paint a very different picture.
In any event it will be fascinating to get the year-end numbers and see if we have a statistical anomaly or a nascent hopeful trend. Let’s hope for the later.
The clearance rate is a fraction with the number of cases solved as the numerator and the number of cases reported as the denominator. Therefore, when the number of reported cases goes down the rate will show improvement even if no more cases are solved.