Houston leaders cite anger, COVID-19 pandemic, and bond reform as reasons behind rising crime rates

The type of crime varies in communities

HOUSTON – When KPRC 2 Investigates discussed the rising crime rates from the inner city to the suburbs, we received a range of responses from several law enforcement agencies. The data shows that no part of the region is immune to crime, but where a person lives can determine what type of crime they will face.

Crime in the suburbs

KPRC looked at crime data in four suburban cities and noticed increases in homicides and auto theft. While homicides increased in some suburban areas, the numbers remain in the single digits and don’t come close to matching the spike seen in Houston where the murder rate is up 39%.

KPRC2 Investigates plotted homicides, burglaries and car thefts for 2018-2021. We plotted them for Sugar Land, Katy, Pearland and Humble. You can zoom in and see which areas are seeing the most crime.

Are people angrier?

That question was posed to several law enforcement officials and University of Houston psychology professor, Dr. John Vincent.

“Yes, I think, absolutely, that’s the case,” said Vincent.

Vincent said COVID-19 left many people feeling like life was out of their control.

“I think people respond to that often by getting anxious and angry and having emotions they don’t quite know what to do with,” said Vincent.

Several law enforcement officials said they too have seen a change in behavior.

“The streets at times just feel different. There’s a different energy out there,” said Webster police chief, Pete Bacon. “‘Hey, what’s best for me and mine, I’m going to do what’s best for me in this immediate moment and not worry about what the rest of society or the rest of the impacts this may have.’ That’s the sense I get.”

“We have to understand there’s a new normal after a pandemic. People are under a lot of stress, both financially and health-wise,” said Seabrook police chief, Sean Wright.

“What we’re seeing is people changing their behavior and that’s very evident in the spike in crime,” said Edison Toquica, chief deputy for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

Residents are feeling the change too.

“The country is literally in PTSD,” said Tomaro Bell, head of the McGregor Super Neighborhood. “That takes a toll on people and they don’t know how, as they say, to play together now. We got people out there killing each other over road rage.

“I don’t feel that, but what I do feel is people are more isolated from each other,” said Katy resident, Aldo Reyes.

Crime doesn’t have boundaries

“Unfortunately, the criminals, they’re not letting up,” said Memorial Villages police chief Ray Schultz. “The criminals are very mobile and they’re very, very prolific right now.”

The law enforcement officials we spoke with said they are sharing resources and data more than ever before because many property crimes and robberies can be linked to a group or groups of individuals who travel from city to city. However, the frequency of certain types of crimes did vary from area to area.

“Our increases are in the areas of fraud and identity theft,” said Schultz.

Wright said Seabrook was seeing an uptick in mental health, drug use and assault calls. Harris County Precinct 7 Capt. Marcus Grant said they were seeing a rise in car break-ins and businesses burglarized. Grant attributed some of these crimes to a rise in the homeless population moving into the area.

“Things that happen at home, domestic violence, I have seen an upswing in that,” said Fort Bend County Sheriff Eric Fagan.

Webster’s chief said his jurisdiction was experiencing an increase in car break-ins, purse snatchings and people being followed from the bank after withdrawing cash.

“As we kind of returned to normal and people started returning, at least to our city, to spend their entertainment dollars and their shopping dollars, naturally the criminal element is going to return as well,” said Bacon.

Bell said she has certainly seen the shift in criminal activity in her neighborhood after COVID restrictions eased and new nightclubs opened in the area.

“Most people didn’t know about us, they didn’t even know this neighborhood was over here. Now you got people coming in casing us where we never had that problem before,” said Bell.

Bond debate and backlogged courts

Every law enforcement officer we spoke with was direct in also attributing rising crime rates to the debate over bond reform and a backlogged court system.

“The criminals know that they’re going to get off on most of these cases. This is, it’s like a catch and release system almost,” said Grant. “Law enforcement can’t keep catching the same guys over and over again. I know nobody wants to hear that answer, but it’s the truth. You’re spending resources catching the same guy 10 times.”

The dual impact of Hurricane Harvey and the COVID-related shutdown has also left approximately 100,000 cases backlogged in our courts. Harris County commissioners have approved close to $20 million to try to bring down the backlog, including hiring three more visiting judges to hear cases.

“I think there’s less fear of consequences,” said Bacon.

Should people be afraid?

“Fear is not the answer and we should not give up our rights because of fear, said Fagan.

Fagan said there is a lot the community can do a lot to help bring down these numbers.

“It’s crimes of opportunity, people leaving things in their cars, being unaware going home, people following them,” said Fagan.

Toquica said in addition to using data to pinpoint crime hot spots, departments are shifting patrol schedules to make sure there are no gaps in coverage, as well as deploying new technology to link cases together that otherwise would have been viewed as isolated incidents.

“Our kids go to school with your kids, our grandkids go to school with your grandkids, we live in the same neighborhoods. We want the same type, the same level of safety for our families as yours. We’re in it together,” said Toquica.

Reyes, who founded a neighborhood watch program in his Katy area neighborhood in 2008, said engaging with law enforcement and getting to know your neighbors can go a long way to helping keep crime rates low. His worry is that the “sense of community” is eroding.

“There’s not that sense of community engagement, and so, maybe it’s indifference, is what I see. I think that’s almost just as bad as angry because indifference means you don’t really care what’s going on next door,” said Reyes.

About the Authors:

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”

Award-winning broadcast journalist covering local, regional, national and international stories. Recognized in the industry for subject matter expertise including: Legal/Court Research, the Space Industry, Education, Environmental Issues, Underserved Populations and Data Visualization.