By JUAN A. LOZANO, Associated Press
HOUSTON (AP) — Political ads on the airwaves and social media in the nation’s fourth-largest city paint a picture of Houston as a failed state where crime is out of control and violent criminals are given free rein.
The political discussion of crime has even made its way to the pulpit, with popular megachurch pastor Ed Young calling Houston “the most dangerous city in America” and telling parishioners that if the city, which is led by Democrats, “must survive, we had better throw these bums out of office.
In fact, September statistics showed a 3% drop in homicides and a 10% drop in overall violent crime compared to the same month last year, as Houston Police Chief Troy pointed out. Finner, at a town hall last month, trying to reassure residents that things are looking up.
But Finner, acknowledging the concerns raised at the meeting, noted that the crime is still “not where we want it to be”.
The debate in the Houston area mirrors similar discussions nationwide about public safety, as violent crime rates appear to have stabilized somewhat but are still above pre-pandemic levels. The topic has become a line of attack ahead of the midterm elections, largely by Republican candidates calling Democrats soft on crime.
In Harris County, Houston’s most trusted House Democrat, Democrat Lina Hidalgo, finds herself in a tough re-election bid as her Republican opponent and some law enforcement officials blame her policies for the crime rate and state GOP officials accuse him of “defunding” the police.
Criminal justice experts say understanding recent crime trends remains difficult, politicization should be avoided and solutions are not straightforward.
“You can’t hire enough officers to stop the problem you have in a city. You have to take a holistic approach. You have to involve the community,” Howard Henderson, founder of the Center for Justice Research told Texas Southern University at Houston.
Other cities with similar discussions include New Orleans, where officials and civic groups are debating how to tackle a rise in violent crime, and Portland, Oregonwho struggles to respond to street violence.
In Houston, as elsewhere, the debate has become politicized and sometimes frantic.
At a Texas Legislative Committee meeting in Austin this month, Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association, suggested — without providing evidence — that many of Harris County’s misdemeanor defendants were part of large unions seeking to commit more crimes.
Ray Hunt of the Houston Police Officers Union warned at a recent meeting in Houston between Harris County officials that if more deputies and prosecutors are not approved, “this county is going to be finished.” .
The warning came as crime in Houston appears to be on a downward trend after more than two years of steep increases during the pandemic and inflationary pressures.
From 2019 to 2021, homicides in the county increased 59%, with most cases in Houston, according to state data. However, other crimes – burglary, robbery and robbery – have declined over the past two years.
“Almost everywhere has seen an increase in murders since 2019,” said crime analyst Jeff Asher.
To complicate matters, a county court system has been overwhelmed by a backlog of criminal cases that began after Houston was hit in 2017 by Hurricane Harvey and exacerbated by the pandemic.
Mayor Sylvester Turner has touted a holistic approach to crime reduction through the One Safe Houston initiative. The $53 million program provided money for police overtime, mental health services, domestic violence response and gun buyback.
In August, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar accused Harris County officials of violating a state law that prevents the “defunding” of police — a phrase that refers to the reallocation of some funds policing to other priorities that underpin crime, such as mental well-being and unemployment, but this is sometimes misrepresented as police abolition.
Hegar accused the county of not letting constables roll over unspent funds.
The law — which was passed by the GOP-controlled legislature and applies to Texas’ most populous counties, most of which are led by Democrats — requires officials to hold an election if a budget cuts or reallocates funding law enforcement.
“We need more funding. … We need boots in the field,” Harris County Constable 4 Mark Herman said this month.
Brittany Cheek, 29, said she was grateful to county officials last month for clearing a lot in her neighborhood of trash and an abandoned mobile home that had become a haven for drug addicts. But she is still preoccupied with crime.
Residents’ concerns shouldn’t be ignored, Henderson said, but the media and politicians should do a better job of giving the public the correct picture of what affects public safety.
Harris County’s bail reform efforts, part of a trial settlement that ensures most misdemeanor defendants don’t stay in jail because they’re poor, have also been blamed for the increase in crime.
Brandon Garrett, a Duke University law professor and one of the reviewers of a consent decree that settled the lawsuit, defended Harris County’s bail efforts, saying, “You can both protecting people’s rights and ensuring public safety at the same time. This is not a barter.”
Hidalgo said the county’s latest budget proposed $100 million in new funding for law enforcement. But approval of that budget is pending, in part because of calls from two Republican commissioners for more officers.
Leroy West, 67, a resident of Southeast Houston, said he was against cutting police budgets in a way that would endanger public safety.
“I’m a proponent of taking some of those funds and addressing social issues, mental health issues. If we deal with it upstream, the police don’t have to get involved downstream,” West said while attending a crime prevention workshop last month.
At the town hall with Finner, residents seemed receptive to his assurances but nonetheless remained concerned.
East Houston resident Lisa Moore told Finner she was “now taking an anxiety pill so she can try to sleep at night” after the recent shootings near her home.
Finner hugged Moore and promised him and others that their concerns would not be ignored.
“We need to get you some sleep and some peace,” Finner said.
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