Play politics first, ask questions later

The number of homicides increased in unincorporated Harris County last year while declining in Houston.

With only a few hours left in the year, 86 murders had occurred in the county’s unincorporated areas in 2009, up from 69 in 2008. The county saw 62 murders in 2007.

Sheriff’s Office spokesman Thomas Gilliland said the department doesn’t know why murders have jumped, and at a time when violence is decreasing across the nation.

“We don’t know the reason or have empirical evidence as to why,” he said Thursday. “Common sense might say it’s the economy with people under a lot of stress, but we don’t know what causes people to commit homicide. ”

For the record, the corresponding numbers for Houston were 281 in 2009, 295 in 2008, and 353 in 2007.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said authorities will be analyzing the cases and looking at such factors as patrol and demographics.

“The sheriff and the district attorney and everybody in law enforcement obviously need to take a look at this and find out what’s going on,” Emmett said. “We need to know: ‘Where are the murders occurring? Is there a pattern?’”

Emmett figured a driver is a burgeoning population out in the county, fueled in part by more city dwellers moving outward.

I suspect Judge Emmett is correct, but we don’t have enough information to say. What exactly is the population of “unincorporated Harris County”, and by how much has it grown over the last couple of years? We’re talking about a fairly small number of homicides here, and with such a small number it may be that the per capita rate hasn’t changed much at all. It also may be the case that this is little more than statistical noise, and that the number of murders in unincorporated Harris County may decline this year even if the Sheriff and the DA do nothing different. Again, at least based on this article, we just don’t know enough to draw any conclusions. Not that that will stop people from doing so if they have an agenda to push.

Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack blamed at least part of the increase on a reduction in patrol, reducing police visibility in the unincorporated areas.

“The backbone of any police agency is patrol,” he said. “Dozens have been moved out of patrol and moved into internal affairs.”

Just so we’re clear here, Radack is apparently still mad about a decision Sheriff Garcia made in April to assign more investigators to the Office of Inspector General, to help clean up one of the many messes left behind by his predecessor, in this case a large backlog of unresolved complaints against jailers and deputies. Radack of course has no idea why the number of murders rose, or even if the rise in absolute numbers necessarily implies anything more than a teeny tick up in the murder rate, but that won’t stop him from trying to pin the blame for it on the Sheriff.

The thing is, Radack’s complaint is shaky at best on its face. Look at this FBI data table from 2008, which shows murder circumstances by relationship. Of the 7,918 murders in 2008 for which the identity of the murderer was known, 6,176 of them were committed by someone the victim knew – family member, friend, neighbor, or acquaintance. Only 1,742 homicides – 22% of the total – were committed by strangers. How much effect do you think increased police patrols would have had on those 6,000+ killings where the killer and victim knew each other? My guess would be not very much.

Now, this is a facile analysis as well, since “acquaintance” accounts for nearly half of the “someone the victim knew” total, and a fair number of those crimes might have occurred in situations where having more police around could have prevented them. A junkie and his dealer would be acquaintances, for example. There were also 6,268 homicides for which the killer was officially unknown, and surely a higher percentage of those would have been stranger killings. The Chron story talks about how a large fraction of murders in Houston are concentrated in a few areas (this is not unusual), and as far as that goes, beefing up police presence in those areas has a positive effect. But again, at least based on this article, we have no idea if similar hot spots exist in unincorporated Harris, and if so what the numbers look like if you separate out those areas from the rest. The point I’m making is simply that Radack’s comment isn’t particularly constructive, and that’s because it wasn’t meant to be.

UPDATE: Check the comments for some great numbers and maps from Jay Crossley of Houston Tomorrow. Thanks, Jay!

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9 Responses to Play politics first, ask questions later

  1. Jay Crossley says:

    Here’s a map I made a while ago that shows the population of unincorporated Harris County (and some other stuff). On this map, I distinguished between CDPs and non-CDPs in the unincorporated area, which is sort of silly. So, here’s the math adding those together:

    The 2005 population of the unincorporated area of Harris County was 1,096,069 people.
    also, the 2005 population of the City of Houston in 2005 was 2,073,709 people.

    (since this map is just Harris County and includes other cities, I got the City of Houston number from another source. Also, I did this map a while ago, so this is 2005 data. It might be possible to do this over with more recent data, but I’d have to figure that out to get a good number for the unincorporated area).

    So, using the 2005 population numbers, the murder rate in each area for 2007 to 2009 in terms of murders per 100,000 was:

    2009 – 13.55
    2008 – 14.23
    2007 – 17.02

    Unincorporated Harris County
    2009 – 7.85
    2008 – 6.30
    2007 – 5.66

    So, I guess the murder rate in the unincorporated area is much lower, but its interesting that its rising sharply while the COH rate is going down. (and if we got 2007 – 2009 pop numbers, I think that these two would be less sharply, but still trending in this way).

    I think its real important, like you’re saying, to realize that talking about the murder rate between two areas that house a million people and two million people is sort of off and it would be much more useful to be able to isolate down to those hot spots that you’re talking about. Within both of these big zones, there are lots of areas with much different experiences of murder rate.

    Once we get the government 2.0 data flows that you mentioned recently, I sure hope it includes stuff like crime data in GIS ready format.

    The Cities of Harris County

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