Friday, December 30, 2005

Our Murder Year(s), Part II

Even with the number of homicides in Houston expected to be up about 25 percent over 2004 when this strange year sputters to its end, the accumulated butchery will still fall shy of half of what it was in that Record Setting Murder Year of 1981, when residents of all makes and models were putting the boom into Boomtown with a vengeance.

We remember that year, albiet hazily, as it was the very year we snuck into town and, as a junior staff member of a since-discontinued publication had to spend many late evenings between Thanksgiving and New Year’s filling in for the slightly more senior staff members who covered the police beat out of the old Cop Shop at 61 Riesner. Houstonians were being shot, knifed and beaten to death at an alarming rate that holiday season, usually at a clip of a half-dozen or more on weekend evenings, and thus we spent most of our time careening about Baghdad on the Bayou, listening to the police scanner and trying to talk to gruff homicide detectives so we could memorialize these seemingly random deaths with 2- and 3-inch “widgets” in the next morning’s paper.*

Shortly after that the boom began leaking out of Boomtown, and a few years later the balloon fizzled altogether. Homicides and other crimes began dropping to slightly more acceptable levels, and the civic psychosis abated somewhat … until that other memorable Murder Year,1991, when a seeming rash of well-publicized killings---some involving well-off white people who were jacked or taken off in their front yards---turned policing into the hot issue in that year’s mayor race.

That was the year the Bob Lanier was trying to unseat Kathy Whitmire, who had ousted Lanier from the Metro chairmanship for his repeated efforts to delay or kill the rail plan that voters kinda-maybe-sorta had approved. Lanier thought rail was his ticket to ride, but, being a quick study, he soon realized that all those blaring live-from-the-scene TV reports weren’t devoted to chronicling some great anti-Metro fervor, and that in fact most Houstonians don’t get exercised one way or another over the transit agency and its plans, unless they patronize its services (as it remains today). So---voila!---Lanier came up with his “655 Plan,” which proposed to take Metro’s rail set-aside and use it to place said number of new officers on the streets. Or the equivalent of that number through overtime. Something like that. It didn’t help that Whitmire seemed aloof and indifferent to the almost-daily screaming TV reports of the mayhem (losing her African-American base to a black candidate didn’t help, either).

Lanier did put more cops on the street, and crime did fall ion Houston, precipitously, and continued falling through the somewhat mystifying Lee P. Brown Interregnum. But as University of Chicago economist and Freakonomics author Steven Levitt has noted, crime fell everywhere in the United States in the 1990s, even in cities that did not markedly increase police presence or undertake innovative anti-crime strategies. (According to the Justice Department, the nation’s violent crime rate fell to its lowest level ever in 2004.)

Levitt believes that increasing the number of police does contribute to a reduction in crime---perhaps that seems obvious, but the economist says it’s hard to establish causality---as does locking up more people (e.g., the huge surge in the inmate population that Texas and other states experienced during the prison-building frenzy of the late ’80s and ’90s). But Levitt has also famously and controversially posited that the biggest single factor was the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion, which resulted in the non-existence of a large pool of potential criminals who would’ve been born to poor, single teen mothers and begun hitting their prime crime-committing years in the early ’90s. Levitt’s theory makes sense to us, based strictly on our Bush-ian intuition, although it is still being vigorously contested, as this recent Wall Street Journal Online piece shows.

Now we’re having another Murder Year in Houston, or perhaps (hopefully) just a Murder Month or two. Whether the recent uptick in killings and other violent crimes is a temporary incongruity, born of one of those recurrent spikes in gang activity and the unprecedented packing-in of hurricane evacuees to apartment complexes with high vacancy rates (which from a non-economic standpoint might not have been the most desirable places to pack ’em in, because high vacancy rates would indicate that people with wherewithal were staying away in droves, most likely ’cause the places were not so cheery to begin with), will be revealed in time. Homicide is the one crime that definitely can’t be prevented by the simple addition of more cops, unless you’d want one stationed at every residence and business in the city.

The mayor and police chief are right in their cautious estimations, in not going overboard in fingering Katrina evacuees (while trying to pry money from FEMA to pay for police overtime … hmmm …), and are responding correctly by addressing the apparent locality of the crime surge (as opposed to chest-beating vows to pour more cops on the streets, willy-nilly). Still, the homicide numbers for November and December** approach the levels of the early 1980s. Those may have been good times for the city, economically, but we doubt anyone is nostalgic for the attendant carnage.

*It’s mostly become a blur, but we do remember one victim clearly---a Hispanic gentleman who took a knife in the chest and fell out smack in the middle of Hillcroft Drive, not far from the apartment we then inhabited. It was unclear whether he had been pushed from a passing vehicle or had been trying to get to or from somewhere on foot when he gave up the ghost. It was a bitterly cold evening, and the poor guy lay sprawled out in the hard street, his work shirt having been torn open by the emergency medical personnel. We strolled over to take a look at the corpse---we suppose that crime scenes were less tightly restricted back then---and since that night we’ve nursed a great hope that we might expire at home in a warm bed.

**Sadly, one of the most recent was the killing of a classmate of our son who was shot in the head during a drug deal at a park connected to an HISD school in an affluent white neighborhood.

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