Last year, 400 people were murdered in Houston, a 42% increase from 2019 and the most since the early 1990s.
Other violent crime also went up, including aggravated assault and kidnappings. Some of that is part of an increase in domestic violence. And there’s no sign of a slowdown.
The sudden surge in crime has Houston-area leaders looking for answers. But in a pandemic year defined by tragedy, job loss, and other stressors, those answers aren’t easy to come by.
As of March 12, Houston Police Department preliminary reports indicate at least 82 murders so far in 2021. That’s compared to 60 at this point last year.
While violent crime was already going up in early 2020, before the pandemic, it got worse after the coronavirus spurred shutdowns, according to Phillip Lyons, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State University.
“During the pandemic, with all the psycho-social stresses that are associated with that, I think it’s not a big surprise that more people lose it,” he said.
Lyons added that he was less sure about how much the related economic recession plays into the crime rate, as crime hasn’t always gone up in past recessions. But he didn’t discount it.
“I think it is safe to say that as stresses mount, including economic stresses, we would expect to see more increases in criminal behavior,” Lyons said.
Not all crime was on the rise in 2020. Property crime, like theft and burglaries, dropped last year, a trend experts say was caused by more people staying home. Burglars generally prefer to strike empty homes.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said while much of the violent crime probably can be attributed to the pandemic stress, it’s important for the community to work with police to prevent crime.
“If you know people who are committing these crimes – I don’t care whether they’re gang-related, whether or not they’re just crimes committed in general – if you know something, we desperately need the community to be an active player,” he said at a news conference last week.
The police department has increased presence, especially in crime hot spots, by putting more officers on patrol and adding shifts thanks to COVID-19 relief funds paying for overtime. It has also diverted funding to investigations and the homicide division. And just last week, Turner announced he would look into using a new round of federal relief funding to add a new HPD cadet class next year.
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo told reporters in January that rising crime was already a nationwide phenomenon.
“After many decades in the United States of historically low violent crime, including murders, we’re now into year two of a significant increase,” he said.
But on top of national trends, others are blaming Harris County judges for releasing people on low-cost bail, or without cash bail at all.
“COVID-19 is a convenient excuse for a rising crime rate,” said Andy Kahan, director of victim services at Crime Stoppers Houston.
Crime Stoppers — along with Acevedo, police unions and local politicians — have been raising concerns about such cases, in which they say the person released has gone on to then commit more serious crimes. Kahan said he started noticing a pattern more than a year ago, before the pandemic.
“In Harris County, there’s many people who become victims of violent crime and especially murder by defendants who have been repeatedly released on multiple felony bonds,” he said.
But researchers dispute that bail had much to do with the rise in crime. Houston Public Media spoke to three criminal justice experts about what they see as the reasons for the increase in crime in Houston and nationwide. All of them said that bail was not a factor.
“The homicide increase was really across the board encompassing cities that had engaged in bail reform and those that had not,” said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri in St. Louis.
Rosenfeld co-authored a study for the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice that looked at 34 major cities and found that homicides went up by 30% in 2020.
Rosenfeld attributed the increase to a number of issues surrounding the pandemic, including mental health.
He also pointed to fallout from police violence: In many cities, homicides saw a June spike higher than that of any previous year. That was after the death of George Floyd sparked nationwide outrage and protests against police, though Rosenfeld was careful not to lay blame on protesters.
“It was something in the nature of policing, something in the community dynamics around confidence and trust in the police that probably led to the increase,” Rosenfeld said.
Steven Nelson, who researches the social psychology of crime at the University of Houston, pointed out that Americans are 20 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than getting murdered. And he said the real story isn’t so much the crime spike, but rather how low the murder rate was in the past several years.
“The only times in the last century and plus that we’ve had murder rates that low was in the ‘50s,” Nelson said. “I would say this isn’t something to be very concerned about if it doesn’t continue to go up at this pace for a while.”