New Harris County pilot program aims to address rising murder rates, violence in communities

Families of victims worried their cases will go unsolved

As of Thursday, Houston police recorded 419 murders in the city, a 27% increase over the number of murders committed in 2020. KPRC 2 Investigates looked at 1,254 murders committed in Houston from 2018 through the end of August. The status of just over half of these cases is listed as “open.”

Families Worry

“My phone kept ringing and it kept saying it was my mother-in-law,” said Kristina Young.

The caller turned out to be Kristina’s sister-in-law, who was searching for her brother to let him know their mother had been shot. Kristina remembers having to wake up her husband to deliver the message.

“She said, ‘We got to go, your momma been shot in the head,’” Aaron Young remembers his wife telling him on New Year’s Eve in 2019.

Aaron’s mother, 60-year-old Leslie Bibbs was shot inside her southwest Houston home on Lazy Ridge. His sister was also injured but survived. The case remains unsolved.

“Over a year now, and I’m still looking for answers,” said Aaron.

Aaron’s concern over whether his mother’s murder will be solved is heightened by the growing number of homicides in the city.

“That’s all I think about now. Now my mother is getting pushed back even further down the line,” said Aaron.

No Single Answer

Houston police said there is no single answer for why murders are on the rise. However, HPD Asst. Chief B.G. Null said an increase in incidents of violence coincided with the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I don’t think you can blame everything on the pandemic, but it has initiated or started a trend we’re not happy with,” said Null. “People are more apt to pick up a gun and solve situations that in the past, I think we haven’t seen.”

Null said they’ve seen an uptick in gang, drug-related and domestic violence. Null also believes the debate over felony bonds in Harris County and a severely backlogged court system are also fueling this increase.

“We have people out on bond for a murder committing another murder,” said Null.

When KPRC 2 mapped Houston murders, we saw no part of town escapes this problem, but areas of southwest and southeast Houston showed higher numbers than other parts of the city.

“I think we’ve seen a lot of gang activity in those areas. I think we see a lot of inter-gang fighting in those areas,” said Null.

Null said HPD is working to address all of these issues and understands the concerns of families worried their loved one’s case will remain unsolved.

“If it were my family, I would have the same concerns, but I can assure you we take every case seriously and we work diligently to solve every case,” said Null.

A Different Approach

Harris County commissioners recently approved $11 million on initiatives that will address the issue of violent crime from a public health perspective.

“We don’t want to keep cutting off a dandelion at its head. We know what happens -- it will grow back,” said Barbie Robinson, executive director of Harris County Public Health.

Robinson said arresting those who commit violent crimes is not enough. The county is now assembling teams of individuals to work in neighborhoods and hospitals to interrupt the cycle of violence and to address the root causes of violence.

“A lot of individuals will come from communities, they’re not individuals from the outside,” said Robinson.

Robinson said the individuals who will be sent to at-risk neighborhoods are known as “credible messengers.” Robinson said in addition to training in trauma services and community engagement, these are individuals who have also been either the perpetrator or victim of violent crime.

Their job will be to find out what is driving violence in an area, or a person’s life, and then work to connect residents with needed services.

“When they’re addressing their health needs, when they’re addressing their mental health needs and their food needs we’re able to reduce the incidents of violence,” said Robinson.

The county is basing its program on the Cure Violence model, which is a program that aims to reduce violent crime through outreach and providing critical services to at-risk communities.

“We recognize the importance of public health approaches to getting at the root cause,” said Robinson.

The county is also working with the Hospital Alliance on Violence Intervention to place workers in hospitals to help victims connect with needed services so they don’t remain trapped in a violent situation.

Another aspect of these initiatives involves creating a Holistic Assistance Response Team, or HART. This team will be comprised of individuals who provide help in several different areas like housing or food assistance and mental health. HART teams will respond to 911 calls that don’t fit into the police, fire or ambulance categories.

“We know and we cannot have our law enforcement respond and solve every problem in every community,” said Robinson.

The county is working with the City of Houston Health Department to identify two neighborhoods where these pilot programs will start. The final details are being worked out on training for staff and the hiring of a director to oversee the new Community Health and Violence Prevention Services department. Robinson said the goal is to have everything up and running by spring.