In Houston, murder was up more than 40% in 2020 and continues to climb. The city recorded its 33rd murder on Sunday. It is enough for an 18% increase over 2020. Murder is up 95% when compared to 2019, before this most recent crime wave started to rise.
In the new report, researchers looking at the increase across the country found two reasons to explain the uptick, and COVID-19 is just one. Researchers from the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice saw an uptick in murder last year before the pandemic began - but not out of line with other crime waves in the past. The report did not study Houston's specific data, but the trends in our city match those nationwide reported by researchers.
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The real surge started last spring and summer when murders across America skyrocketed. Researchers suggest the easing of some COVID-19 lockdowns played a part in that. The lockdowns kept people apart from one another. When lockdowns eased, crime came back. The economic and health stress helped fuel the rise, but researchers say the COVID-19 impact on policing may have as well. One of the researchers called the mix "a perfect storm."
"When police are engaging in social distancing, they're not able to engage in the kind of face-to-face interactions with the public that can help reduce crime," Dr. Rick Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri - St. Louis told ABC13. Rosenfeld is one of three authors of the new report.
The other driver researchers saw around the same time were the protests over George Floyd's death in late May and June. Researchers are clear that it wasn't protesters committing the crime, rather it was the environment surrounding the protests. The study suggests police officers across the country were deployed to monitor protests which took them away from neighborhood policing. But the authors note, community members may also have been concerned about calling police at a time of such high tensions between police and the policed.
"It would not be surprising if the already-somewhat fraught relationship between those communities and the local police department became even more difficult," Rosenfeld told ABC13. "All of that then could have contributed to the uptick in violence that we saw as community members were moving further away from the police, taking matters into their own hands to settle disputes on their own, and thereby contributing to the violence."
It's not just community members. Police officers were affected too, said Doug Griffith, president of the Houston Police Officer's Union. "No one wants to be the next viral video."
While the study authors call that evidence anecdotal, Griffith suggests police officers have moved away from pro-active policing - catching criminals before they victimize more people - out of concern for discipline.
"It's very difficult to motivate guys to be more proactive and go chase violent offenders when they're going to be in trouble if they get into a use of force incident," Griffith said.
Researchers say it will take serious efforts at the kind of reform Houston and other cities are struggling to get to.
"That doesn't mean defund the police or abolish the police, which are slogans that I don't think have much policy import. What it does mean is embracing the essence of the call for police reform. One clearly is to increase accountability of officers who have engaged in serious misconduct, including violence against citizens. The other is to redirect activities away from the police that have fallen on the police by and large, by default, that they themselves acknowledge they're not well suited to handle," he said.
In the city of Houston, a police reform task force reported results to Mayor Sylvester Turner at the end of September. The mayor's office said Turner has acted on some of the recommendations and is working on others, including a recommended strengthening of independent police oversight to include a new chairperson of that body.
Griffith at HPOU said officers need more training right away. If the hard work isn't done, the study suggests crime may only increase again this year.
Rosenfeld reminds ABC13 that time is running out to act.
"This case requires urgent action by cities, by their police departments and by city populations who will put pressure on their elected officials and their policymakers to act now," he said.
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