The Texas Department of Public Safety receives reports from all law enforcement agencies in the state of reported crimes. Those reports are summarized in a database that is available to the public and updated on a daily basis as reports are received from the agencies. A few days ago, the database showed that it had received the December reports from all law enforcement agencies in Harris County, giving us the first look at the incidence of crime in Harris County for 2023.
Before I begin digging into those numbers, three caveats. First, I have noticed that it is common for law enforcement agencies to amend their reports, which results in the totals drifting up in subsequent months. For example, when I updated the 2022 spreadsheet all categories of crimes were slightly higher. However, these adjustments are normally very small and do not affect the overall trends.
Second, only crimes that are reported to law enforcement agencies are included in these statistics. We have long known that, for a variety of reasons, many crimes are never reported. This Department of Justice 2021 Survey found that less than half of most crimes are reported (see Table 4 on p.5). So, these DPS reports probably only reflect about half of the actual crimes committed. Also, we know very little about how the portion of crimes reported might change over time, which introduces another element of uncertainty into determining trendlines for the incidence of crimes.
Lastly, the DPS database only summarizes the data by county back to 2013. Prior to that time, the database is only broken down by law enforcement agency. I have not taken the time to identify all of the Harris County law enforcement agencies prior to 2013 to come up with countywide numbers. So, all of the numbers and charts below begin with 2013.
However, I think it is important context to recognize that crime several decades ago was much worse than it has been in the last decade. For example, homicides in the City of Houston peaked out at 734 in 1991. But after 1991, homicides began to steadily decline, dropping to 234 in 2011 (-68%). Considering the City’s population grew by about 24% during that same period, the decline during those two decades was truly remarkable.
Since then, however, the incidence of all crimes has been trending back up, as you will see in the stats below. But it is important to keep in mind that these levels are still significantly lower than in the 1980s and early 1990s.
With those caveats out of the way, here is what the 2023 report shows.
There are seven categories of major crimes that are included in the DPS report: homicide, rape, robbery, assault, burglary, larceny and auto theft. For the purposes of my analysis, I group homicides, rapes, robberies and assaults as violent crimes, and burglary, larceny and auto theft as non-violent crimes.
All categories of violent crime bottomed out in 2010-2012. But in 2013, violent crime began steadily increasing, growing nearly three times the population growth. But in 2020, there was an alarming increase in violent crimes that continued through 2021. By the time this crime wave topped out in late 2021, homicides and rapes had nearly doubled from 2013 and assaults were up 40%. The 631 homicides reported in 2021 was the highest level since the early 1990s. Over the last two years, violent crime has declined somewhat, but is still well above levels a decade ago.
Homicides have dramatically declined to 437 last year, a 44% decline in just two years. While homicides are obviously tragic, they represent a very small portion of all violent crimes. The media frequently focuses on homicide, missing the larger perspective on violent crime in general.
Rapes and assaults have also declined, albeit at a much more modest pace (~10%). I am particularly alarmed about the number of rapes and abysmal clearance rates. I will be writing more on this soon.
Of course, this spike in violent crime coincided with the pandemic. Many commentators have attempted to attribute the spike to the pandemic. While it is a rather stark coincidence, I have never really seen a very good explanation as to why the pandemic should have set off a crime wave.
The trends for robbery are quite interesting and not consistent with the trends for other violent crimes. Robberies have steadily declined throughout the last decade, including during the pandemic. From 2013 to 2023, robberies in Harris County have declined from approximately 14,000 to under 8,700, a stunning 37% decline. I have been unable to divine any cause that would account for this dramatic decline. I think it is something that deserves some serious study.
Interestingly, the trends for the three non-violent crimes included in the report are all moving in different directions. Burglaries, for the last decade, have been steadily falling, similar to robberies. Last year, they stood at barely half of the number in 2013. Auto thefts on the other hand, have been steadily increasing and are over 50% higher than a decade ago. Larceny, which is any theft that is not a burglary or an auto theft, has been mostly flat over the last decade.
I have been watching Houston’s crime stats for nearly thirty years. I have learned over that time that crime is an incredibly complex phenomenon, which defies simple explanations which are the stock and trade of political agendas. While local factors like the effectiveness of the local criminal justice system and a community’s cohesiveness play a large part, there are also national, macro factors that affect the incidence of crime. For example, our nation’s decision to largely deinstitutionalize mental health care in the 60s and 70s has tremendously affected the criminal justice system.
Nonetheless, I have to believe that the District Attorney getting the case backlog from the pandemic significantly reduced and, at least, some of our judges imposing tougher bond requirements, has had some impact. Unfortunately, we still have a number of judges that are more committed to a progressive criminal justice agenda than protecting the public.
For the last couple of years, polling has consistently showed that the number one concern of Harris County residents is crime. Virtually every survey has shown that most residents in our county fear for their personal safety. Some in the media have suggested that these fears are overblown, citing falling crime rates over the last two years.
I think there are several reasons for the disconnect between the view of the public and the pundits. First, we got accustomed to lower crime rates after the spike in the 1980s and 1990s. Seeing that progress reversed is certainly a valid reason for alarm. Also, other than homicide, the declines in other crimes over the last two years in crimes has been relatively small. We still had 35,000 violent crimes committed in Harris County last year. That is one violent crime for every 750 residents in the County. When you consider the number of their family members and friends that were affected, it is easy to see why so many still consider crime a major issue.