"I wasn't really particularly scared because these shootings have been happening too long," said Moreno Lopez, who lives in Houston's most crime-ridden block. "We just instinctively knew. We just dropped to the ground. We got back up and we left and went home."
Within a half-mile radius of his Los Cabos apartment in south Houston, one crime was reported about every seven hours, according to a 13 Investigates analysis of Houston Police Department crime data for the last 15 months.
We analyzed every incident reported to Houston police from January 2020 through March 2021. We focused on places where people live and excluded shoplifting offenses as well as crimes at grocery stores, department stores, malls and supermarkets from our analysis to identify the neighborhood with the most crime.
Our analysis found the area with the most crime was on and around the 10900 block of Gulf Freeway, where Los Cabos is located.
"When you go outside in your own neighborhood or basically anywhere you live, how do you feel?" Moreno Lopez asked. "You feel safe. My area, I walk out and the moment I'm first thinking is, 'Who is going to shoot me today? Who's going to shoot my car? Who's going to shoot one of my own family?'" That's exactly what I'm always thinking."
In the last 15 months, there's been 1,616 crimes reported in the half-square mile neighborhood where Moreno Lopez lives, including everything from murders and aggravated assaults to damage, robberies and theft, according to our analysis.
Although crime is rampant in his neighborhood, our investigation found the increase in crime over the last year is widespread across Houston. Our analysis of crime data for the last two years shows 79% of Houston zip codes saw more crime in 2020 compared to 2019.
INTERACTIVE: Which zip codes saw the most increase in crime over the last year? Darker zip codes means more crime was reported. On mobile device? Click here for a full screen experience.
Overall, there were nearly 30,000 more crimes reported to HPD in 2020 compared to 2019, according to our analysis. That increase means officers have less time to patrol neighborhoods, build meaningful connections with the communities they serve and engage in other outreach that could prevent crime.
HPD Commander Matthew May oversees the district with the most crime-ridden block in Houston. May said there aren't enough officers to do much more than just respond to 911 calls every day, even in the crime-plagued neighborhood.
May typically has between 12 and 16 officers in his entire 45-mile district of more than 155,000 residents, stretching from Clear Lake to Airport Boulevard, north of Hobby Airport.
"My patrol officers right now, they are crime-driven. They're going from call to call to call answering calls for service as they occur," May said. "They don't have as much time for proactive, investigatory work as I'd like, but I work with the resources I've got."
'Getting worse and worse'
The signs of crime are visible every morning at Los Cabos apartment - broken doors and smashed-in windows that are boarded up.
Nearly every single day an apartment complex is broken into, said Neal Verma, of NOVA Asset Management, who oversees Los Cabos.
"The problem that we face is most tenants obviously get extremely scared, they get overwhelmed. They keep hearing stories about crime rising at the properties, rising in Houston in general and it's very hard to get a handle over it," Verma said. "Since we're not the police and since we can't control the crime in the area, it's very tough for us to try to mitigate the crime. ... We hope that police can do a better job of taking care of crime in the area. We need a lot of help."
Across the city, incidents were up 13% in 2020, with 256,833 crimes reported to HPD in 2020 compared to about 227,000 crimes reported in 2019.
INTERACTIVE: We mapped out every crime that's been reported to HPD since January 2020, by block. Check your address to see how many crimes happened in your neighborhood. On mobile device? Click here for a full screen experience.
When he was announced as head of HPD in March, Police Chief Troy Finner told 13 Investigates' Ted Oberg it is important for officers to build trust within the community, but that it's difficult since officers are busy running from one call to the next.
"I don't like to make excuses, but when you're 1,400 officers, you know, 2,000 officers short, it's a problem," Finner said last month. "Our local leaders, political leaders, they get it now so you're going to see more emphasis put on building our numbers up and of course when we get more police officers, I think we can be more effective, but we can't sit back and ... just throw our hands. We've got to be laser-focused on those locations and those individuals who are committing (crime)."
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Texas Commission on Law Enforcement data shows 5,246 HPD officers oversee more than 2.3 million residents.
"We're not New York, or we're not Chicago. We only have 5,000 officers," Verma said. "But what we can do is push our elected officials to say, 'OK, why do we not have enough police officers? Why does Chicago have twice the number of police officers we have? What are we not doing?'"
INTERACTIVE: How many police officers does your city police department or county have? Search the map below to see how many officers there are per 1,000 residents in your town. Note: The data is just an indicator of how many officers each department has based on population. It does not include analysis on factors, such as location and crime rate, that could cause a department to have more or less officers. On mobile device? Click here for a full screen experience.
Right now, May said officers are responding to 911 calls nonstop from 5 to 11 p.m. and don't have time for proactive policing. The night shift has some time between 3 and 6 a.m. to do proactive policing, but at that time of night, there's not many opportunities to interact with the community, he said.
"Additional officers would be nice," May said. "(We'd like) better ways for us to get our message out about how not to be a victim of crime (and) ... what resources are available; to really get the community involved and telling us when they see something that is troubling, or if they see something that just isn't right."
May, and every HPD area commander, have officers they can deploy for special crime prevention initiatives. May says he has devoted the so-called differential response units, or DRT officers, to the area for months. But given how large his district is and how many complexes there are, May admits even those special officers can only get to Los Cabos "once or twice a month," for crime prevention patrols (without being dispatched for a 911 call).
"It's not as many as we would like," May said.
At Los Cabos apartment complex, which has 1,000 units housing at least 7,000 residents, there have been 700 crimes reported since January 2020.
"This complex drives 25% of all violent crime in my district," May said, adding that the complex is consistently one of the top 10 areas across the city when it comes to family violence cases.
Despite the high crime, there are only three or four officers assigned to the neighborhood, from Edgebrook down to the Beltway, every day, May said.
To help curb crime, Verma said Los Cabos hired private security. He showed us bills where the complex spent more than $25,000 every month on security during the pandemic.
"The police themselves, these days, are taking an hour, two hours, three hours to come (in) many cases," Verma said. "Eventually they'll find that, look, this is a low-level crime and because of the jail policy, they can't take them and so then it just becomes a big waste of time."
Last March, the county said people accused of low-level crimes, like criminal mischief, trespassing, petty theft and low-level drug crime, would be arrested at a later date.
Verma said lower booking numbers meant crime kept getting worse at his complex.
"They're like a kid whose hand's been slapped with their hand in the cookie jar. Now they're getting worse and worse and doing increasingly bad things," Verma said. "That's been extremely frustrating for us because we have no control over that and we are seeing with our own eyes, people who are starting with petty crimes and misdemeanors graduating up to felonies."
Despite leaving fliers and resources on how to avoid being a victim of family or other violence, May said lowering crime in the area has been difficult.
"It's been that way for years," May said. "There are lots of apartment complexes in this area. There's a lot of retail locations. You're right off I-45 and so easy access if you're coming down here to do just about anything, but it also attracts a fair number of criminals unfortunately."
'It's just stupid'
Across Houston, violent crime and murders drove a backlog of evidence at the forensic science center. But, lower-level crimes were up in 2020 compared to 2019, too. Bribery was up 77%, weapons law violations were up 36%, intimidation was up 29% and theft of motor vehicles or parts was up 15%.
"Even just having broken windows has a major impact," Verma said. "That will enable other criminal elements to think, 'Hey, this property is not being well kept. This is a place to hang out and cause problems.'"
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Resident Tracey Moore said it's common to see someone kicking open an apartment door trying to break in, and he hears gunshots all the time.
"They had a shootout down here last week," Moore said. "We lost one."
May said his officers meet with the apartment complex on a bi-weekly basis, offering advice on how to prevent crime, including cutting back trees, improving lighting and fixing the gate, which keeps getting damaged.
He said he'd like to think they've made deep inroads in the community, but admits it is difficult given the shortage of officers.
"There's a certain element of trust in it and you'd have to believe in the professionals in the Houston Police Department," May said. "This sounds sort of hokey, but we are doing our best and we really do care."
Moreno Lopez said he tries to protect and shield his sisters from the crime-ridden community, but it is hard not to worry about them whenever they go outside to play.
"My sisters always try to talk about the area here. I try to make sure they ignore it because I don't want them to think about this area. Why do you think I bought this," Moreno Lopez said, looking down at the McDonald's Happy Meals he bought for them. "Just to make sure ... there's some good stuff. I work hard for the goodness."
When he first moved to the neighborhood, thieves stole his sister's bicycle and a few bags of clothing.
Now, he said he's still waiting for it to get better.
"Firefighters, ambulance always come here every day. Every day, doesn't matter what it is." Moreno Lopez said. "Whether it's someone overdosing, shooting or whatever, they come every day ... It's just stupid."
Crime prevention tips
The city of Houston has crime prevention resources available online that include tips on how to prevent burglaries, purse theft, sexual assault and theft of a firearm among other things.
Suggestions include knowing who lives in your neighborhood and reporting any suspicious persons immediately. HPD also recommends joining a neighborhood watch group.
WATCH: How Crime Stoppers Houston is addressing spike in crime
For a full list of tips, go to the city's "Keep Houston Safe" public safety campaign site.
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