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I recently obtained a report from HPD that shows the number of cases reported and the percentage of those cases that were solved from 2012-2016. The report shows about an 8% increase in violent crimes in 2016 compared to 2015, while non-violent crimes held fairly steady. HPD had mixed results in solving its cases.
Homicides – The number of homicides hit a low in 2011 at just under 200. Since then the numbers have been tracking back up, reaching 298 last year. This year was little changed at 290. However, the rate at which HPD solves murders has been falling significantly in recent years. In the early 2000’s HPD regularly solved only about 60% of the murder cases. After some adverse publicity about the Homicide Division, their performance greatly improved, solving 90% of their cases in 2008. But the numbers started going south again in 2012 and it has been pretty much downhill since. In 2016, HPD only solved 58%, the lowest number since I began tracking these stats in 2000.
Rape – Much like homicides, rapes had been on the decline through the early 2000’s. In 2013, only 618 rapes were reported, the lowest number since 2000. But the last three years have seen a dramatic and troubling increase in the number of rapes, topping out in 2016 at 1,035, a whopping 67% increase in just three years. The increase appeared to catch HPD off guard as its clearance rate for rape cases plummeted in 2014 to just 24%. But it has since recovered, solving 41% of the cases in 2015 and 53% in 2016. Still having almost half of all rape cases go without justice is unacceptable.
Robbery – Robberies in 2016 held steady at about 10,000 cases, a level that has been very consistent for the last two decades. HPD has historically solved about 20% of the robbery cases and last year was no different.
Burglary – Burglaries fell about 8% this year. Burglaries topped out in 2009 at just under 30,000 and have been steadily declining ever since. But HPD’s clearance rate on burglaries continues to be abysmal, coming in this year at 6.9%. Since 2000, HPD has never solved more that 8% of burglaries, clearly demonstrating this is not a priority for the department.
The most recent round of stats shows that HPD has been improving its clearance rate on violent crimes over the last three years, but the rate for nonviolent crimes has fallen below what were already anemic numbers. HPD lags behind the national average in all categories, although to be fair, so do most other large departments. However, in the robbery and burglary categories it solves only about two-thirds and half as many of those cases, respectively, as the national average — a pretty clear indication HPD could do better.
Some in law enforcement argue that the clearance rate is not a fair metric by which to judge the effectiveness of a law enforcement agency. Certainly, there are other factors that should be examined as well, but I have long argued that this is one of the key metrics we should be using. (See, “It’s the Clearance Rate, Stupid“, Houston Chronicle, May 18, 2008).
Overall, when you look at HPD’s performance over the last 15 years, not much has changed, except the cost of the department. The City has gradually whittled away at the total personnel in the department (more on that later), but number of police officers has hovered right around 5,000. The number of cases solved has ranged from a low of 22,000 to a high of 34,000. The 2016 total of 25,000 is about average.
However, the cost of the department has skyrocketed. It has more than doubled since 2003, rising from $422 million to over $850 million. And that is not even fully accounting for the cost of the department’s pensions. If that had been fully factored in last year, the cost would have topped $1 billion. The average cost per crime solved has risen from about $16,000 in 2003 to over $34,000 last year, without fully accounting for the pension costs.
Public safety now gobbles up about two-thirds of the City’s general fund budget. More money for public safety will, undoubtedly, be the battle cry for those seeking to repeal the property tax cap this fall. But we have been throwing more money at this problem for the last two decades with little to show for it. It is time to start rethinking public safety. What do we expect of it? How is it managed? What are the mission critical functions? We may ultimately conclude that more resources are needed. But until we have that kind of analysis, throwing more money at the problem again should not be an option.
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