The Texas Department of Safety has finally released its annual crime report by jurisdiction for 2019.1 This is the only place I have been able to find data on the number of reported crimes that are “cleared”2 by individual law enforcement agencies. The clearance rates across the state continue to be abysmal, but Houston and Harris County are particularly pathetic.
Harris County tied with Dallas County for last place among major Texas counties in solving the crimes reported to their law enforcement agencies, at just 11%, compared to the statewide average of 15%. The Harris County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) and the Houston Police Department (HPD) dragged down the countywide average, coming in at 8% and 10%, respectively. These rates are among the lowest clearance rates for larger law enforcement agencies in the State.
The Houston Police Department (HPD) only solved 40% of its murder cases in 2019. This was one of the worst rates in the state, well below the statewide average and other metropolitan areas.
This was just the latest leg down for HPD’s murder clearance rate. It is now lowest since I started tracking it in 2000.
For many years I have been writing about the embarrassingly low rates at which rapes are solved across the board. 2019 was no different. Statewide, only 23% of rape cases were solved. It is very difficult for sexual assault victims to come forward and report these crimes. For less than one in four of them to receive justice from our legal system is shameful. Every agency is pretty much equally awful on this one.
HPD is now solving rape cases at about half the rate it was a decade ago (28% vs 53%).
Robbery & Burglary
Most people are stunned at how few robberies and burglaries are solved. The results for 2019 were pretty similar to what we have seen in other years. The statewide clearance rates for robberies and burglaries were 18% and 9%, respectively. HCSO apparently makes no attempt to solve burglaries, as it cleared only 2% of its cases. I would have thought that more burglars than that would have shown up and turned themselves in. HPD was only slightly better at 5%. I am just guessing that having a 95-98% chance of getting away with a burglary does not provide much of a deterrent to criminals.
To put these percentages is some numerical context, in Harris County there were over 200 unsolved murders in 2019, nearly 2,000 unsolved rapes, over 10,000 unsolved robberies and nearly 25,000 unsolved burglaries. In all, Harris County citizens reported almost 175,000 crimes that were not solved. Lord knows how many they did not even bother to report.
Law enforcement agency managers and their surrogates, such as the police unions, always have a litany of reasons for how shockingly few crimes are actually solved. They complain about staffing levels, that they are discouraged by prosecutors and judges not prosecuting the criminals they catch, lack of public cooperation, etc. And there is some merit to their points.
But the fact remains that, as a society, we are failing miserably to provide justice to the victims of crimes and we have been failing to do so for a long time. And as time goes by it only get worse.
There are many negative ramifications from our inability to solve a reasonable percentage of crimes beyond the obvious. For one, when the public does not have any confidence that law enforcement can do their job, they begin to take matters into their own hands – as I suspect is evidenced by the meteoric rise in gun sales.
Instead of everyone trotting out the same tired arguments about why we are not doing better, we need a deep dive into why we are doing such a terrible job. We need the governing bodies which supervise law enforcement agencies to start doing their job. Have you ever heard any member of the Houston City Council ask why HPD only solved 40% of murders last year? My guess is that not a single one of them even knows that is the case.
A good start would be to require every law enforcement agency in the state to publish its clearance rates monthly. One of the basic rules I learned in my business career was that “if you cannot/do not measure it, you cannot manage it.” The clearance rate should be a regular agenda item for every governing body that supervises a law enforcement agency, and the media should cover how well crimes are being solved on a regular basis.
Of course, none of that is happening now, which is probably why the numbers are so abysmal. Where there is no accountability, poor performance almost always follows.
Note 1 – The Texas Department of Safety issues an annual “Crime in Texas” report. Normally that report is issued in the fall of the following year. In past years, DPS has released a detailed spreadsheet with information on every law enforcement agency by county shortly after the Crime in Texas report was issued. However, this year it was significantly delayed. I just finally found it here. (Note: This site automatically downloads a large Excel spreadsheet.) Don’t ask me why it takes so long to compile and publish this data. I have been pressing for HPD and the HCSO to release the clearance rate monthly for years to no avail.
Note 2 – A crime is considered cleared when the law enforcement agency makes an arrest or determines that the reported crime did not occur. I first wrote on the importance of this metric in this Houston Chronicle column in 2008.