Earlier this week, County Administrator David Berry presented data to the commissioners court indicating that violent crime in the county is trending downward.
“The numbers that we are seeing in violent crime today are lower from last year, and the numbers we saw in 2021 were trending down from 2020. We are moving in the right direction – downward,” said Berry.
In a press release, Berry also directed media to an online dashboard provided by the Harris County Office of Justice and Safety providing crime statistics. A note on the dashboard informs users that the crime data is sourced from the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS).
Texas DPS however relies on crime statistics sent by law enforcement agencies to generate reports, and as of Friday, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) had not submitted any data for the month of September 2022.
In response to a query from The Texan, HCSO Chief of Staff Jason Spencer said there were “technical issues with the computer system used to track and compile” data from the county’s law enforcement agencies.
“As a result, we are working to verify the accuracy of our September data before we submit it to DPS.”
In addition to absent data for the month of September, Spencer acknowledged that another technical problem had led to errors in reporting sexual offenses, and currently Texas DPS says that although there were 74 rapes reported by HCSO in June, there was only one in July and zero in August.
Users may generate reports for HCSO at the Texas DPS website, but a year over year comparison report through the month of September shows zero incidents in each crime category while providing comparison to the 2021 numbers drastically skewing percentages of decreases in crime.
HCSO provided a report to The Texan comparing crime data this year to last year, but the chart also shows an oddly sudden drop in sex offenses from 136 in June to just 24 in July.
In his press release, Berry said rapes had been reduced by 34 percent since 2021, and the HCSO report says the drop from last year is 20 percent but has not confirmed all technical problems have been resolved.
HCSO is not the only law enforcement agency in the county that reports to Texas DPS. In addition to the City of Houston, there are law enforcement agencies for multiple other cities, colleges, and school districts within the county all responsible for their own reporting.
A disclaimer at the end of each report generated at the Texas DPS site states that law enforcement agency participation in the Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR) is “voluntary” and that there is no data frequency submission requirement.
In many categories, it may take several months or even years for incidents to be reported, and often reported numbers must be adjusted as crimes are discovered and processed from previous months and years. This dynamic makes year-to-date comparisons unreliable.
Despite the known reporting lag, the county administrator’s office press release states that murder and non-negligent homicide rate has decreased by 13 percent from this time last year, and that the violent crime rate is 2 percent lower than 2018.
Data from the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences Medical Examiner Service, not reliant on law enforcement agency reporting, indicates there has been a 65 percent increase in homicides across the county since 2018. The medical examiner’s office ruled that at least 720 deaths in 2021 were due to homicide.
In response to a request for comment on the crime reporting problems uncovered by The Texan, Harris County First Assistant District Attorney and Chief of Courts David Mitcham emailed a statement.
“We at the District Attorney’s Office are concerned that inaccurate and incomplete information was used to make the claim that Harris County has recently experienced a substantial and precipitous decline in violent crime, when it has not; Commissioners Court and the people of Harris County should not be misled into sharing this fantasy,” said Mitcham.
The Harris County administrator’s office did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.
Harris County Deputies Association President David Cuevas told The Texan he doubted violent crime had reduced this year.
“Harris County’s the murder capital of Texas for a reason,” said Cuevas. “Not because there’s been a reduction or leveling of the rate, but because the increase in violent crimes has not been reported accurately.”
HCSO did not provide details about the technical problems contributing to the reporting errors, but the county’s criminal justice system computer systems have been down repeatedly over the past calendar year, and in one incident forced the release of nearly 300 suspects from the jail system.
Likely voters polled have cited public safety as a top issue in the 2022 election cycle, and many have blamed the region’s rising crime on policies implemented by County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Democrats on the commissioners court who settled a federal lawsuit on bail and have been reluctant to add patrol officers and prosecutors.
In the most recent poll, Republican candidate for county judge Alexandra del Moral Mealer, who has campaigned on bolstering law enforcement, led Hidalgo by a 2-point margin.
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Holly Hansen is a reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.