What's behind Houston Police Department's falling arrest rates?

Reports show drop in number of arrests over past decade

HOUSTON – City of Houston financial reports show a massive drop in the number of “physical arrests” by the Houston Police Department over the last decade.

According to a Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, the number of arrests logged by the department dropped from 110,058 in 2008 to 51,910 in 2017.

"We need to start with resources," said Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo when asked why the rates have dropped. 

Acevedo pointed out the number of officers has been falling.

According to the city’s CAFR, the number of officers dropped from a high of 5,703 in 2009 to 5,357 in 2017. HPD spokesperson Victor Senties said the number officers dropped again this year to 5,100.

Yet, in that time, Houston's population has grown to more than 2.3 million people. Simply put, more officers have been retiring from HPD than the city's been hiring.

“You can't make arrests if a cop's not there,” said Acevedo.

Acevedo said budget cutbacks over the past several years have also slashed the department's civilian ranks.

“When you lose 43 percent of your support staff, somebody's still got to do that work," Acevedo said. "That work does not go away. Which means, in too many instances, we're having to use police officers to do that work."

Acevedo also said there is another factor contributing to the decline in arrests, and he defines the word "arrest" this way. 

“You're physically hand-cuffed, you're taken to jail and you're booked, that's an arrest,” Acevedo said.

The reason that distinction is important is there are thousands of crimes officers handle every year that don't meet this definition.

Acevedo said what the arrest numbers don't show you is the work officers do on diversion programs.

These programs include public intoxication, marijuana possession and people in mental health crises.

These programs offer treatment and a second chance instead of permanent criminal records and a jail cell.  

“Those are not included in our arrest numbers,” Acevedo said.

Acevedo points to public intoxication cases as an example. HPD records show in 2010, the department handled more than 20,000 public intoxication arrests. In 2013, the city opened a sobering center, which is where officers take someone to sober up away from jail. In 2017, the number of PI arrests dropped to 835, while 3,999 people were admitted to the sobering center.

The marijuana diversion program began in March 2017 in Harris County and the District Attorney’s Office estimates 85 percent of the more than 5,400 cases in this program came from HPD. In 2017, HPD records show officers responded to more than 11,000 calls involving people in mental health crises who were eventually admitted to a hospital.

Acevedo said the volume has not gone away.

“No,” he said. “We want to be smart on crime, not say 'We made a 100,000 arrests.'”
Acevedo said the department's priority will always be on violent crime, adding that those are the cases with life-ending consequences for victims and life-long trauma for families.

Rosalind Kinney's husband, Alvin, was murdered three years ago during an armored car holdup near the Galleria.

"We were a happy family," Rosalind Kinney said during a recent Crimestoppers news conference. "We were a unit, and we lost our foundation."

His killers have not been caught and are suspected of committing other crimes.

"It's been a long three years for us, and no one could ever fill the void for Alvin," Kinney said.

Acevedo said focusing on cases like Kinney’s circles back to the issue of manpower.

“The fact of the matter is, we are paper thin out there,” said Joe Gamaldi, president of the Houston Police Officer’s Union.

Gamaldi said that is finally changing. The city pledged five cadet classes over the next year, adding as many 375 new officers. Gamaldi said that's more than the number of officers expected to retire during that time.

“You're going to add more police officers this next fiscal year than we've added in a generation,” Gamaldi said.

Acevedo said the department also recently received a $1 million grant to study violent crime trends and patterns.

“This will give us an insight, this analysis, as to where we can expect violent crime and what type of violent crime we can expect,” Acevedo said.

Acevedo did not want to discuss specifics for tactical reasons, but said the plan will be to target these areas with a mix of high-visibility patrols and undercover officers.