During the last election, the severity of crime in Harris County was hotly debated. The final numbers for 2022 are now available from the Texas Department of Safety and they paint a mixed picture. In some of the more serious categories, there was some improvement last year but the levels remain well above where they stood a decade ago. Robberies and burglaries both continued a long-standing trend downward, but other property crimes continued to climb with double digit increases in 2022.
Homicide, Rapes & Assaults
In the late 1980s and early1990s, Houston was going through its last crime wave. Homicides topped out in 1990 at 734. However, from there, homicides steadily declined for the next twenty years, hitting a low of 264 in 2011. Considering the population of Harris Countygrew by about 70% during that same period, the decline was truly remarkable.
However, after 2011, homicides began creeping up and then skyrocketed higher in 2020 and 2021. The 631 homicides in 2021 was the highest level since 1990. In 2022, homicides declined slightly to 578 (-8%) but were still nearly double the number of homicides a decade ago.
The trend for rapes and assaults tracked fairly close to homicides.
Robberies & Burglaries
Interestingly, the trend for robberies and burglaries was almost the opposite of homicides, rapes and assaults. Both began the last decade well below the peak in Houston’s last crime wave in the early 1990s and have continued to track lower. Robberies took a particularly sharp downturn starting in 2021 and fell again in 2022 to just over 9,000. That is as low a level as I could find going back for thirty years.
The DPS has two categories of theft that it reports in its Index Crime Summary - larceny and auto theft. Larceny is basically any kind of theft that does not involve physically taking someone’s property from them by force, which is robbery, and breaking into a home or business to steal something, which is burglary.
Both larceny and auto theft have also been generally declining for the last thirty years. Improvements in vehicle security systems resulted in a large reduction when those technologies were first rolled out.
However, both reached their nadir in 2018 and have been steadily climbing since. Both saw an 11% increase in 2022 alone.
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 as to why it goes up or down. Also, while local factors like the effectiveness of the local criminal justice system and a community’scohesiveness play a large part, there are also national macro factors that effect it. For example, our nation’s decision to largely deinstitutionalize mental health care in the 60s and 70shas tremendously affected the criminal justice system.
Many have speculated that the pandemic affected crime rates, citing various possible effects. While some of that conjecture seems to makesome intuitive sense, it is hard to find much support for the pandemic havingany outsize effects in the stats. Forexample, some speculated that the stress of the pandemic and associatedlockdowns would cause more violence, especially family violence. But while homicides certainly took a spikeupward at the beginning of the pandemic, assaults have slightly declinedthroughout the pandemic.
However, I do not think that itcan be seriously doubted that the more lenient bond practices of many of theDemocratic judges elected since 2018, combined with the huge case backlogs,have contributed to much of the increase in serious violent crimes, especiallymurders, in Harris County recently. Crime Stoppers has documented more than enough specific instances toshow that has been a significant driver of the increase.
The precipitous drop in violentcrime in Harris County that began in the early 1990s was a nationalphenomenon. Nationally, the murder ratein the U.S. dropped by half between 1990 and 2006. And for most of the last decade, the rateshave remained relatively low. Thoselower levels of crime became our new norms. So, it is hardly surprising that Americans would be anxious about thespike in violent crime over the last three years. Unless and until we return to those norms, Iexpect that crime will continue to be on the public’s mind and a leading issuein elections.