According to the City’s annual report, HPD made 51,910 arrests in FY2016-2017, down almost 10,000 from the previous year. The decline is consistent with a downward trend since 2002, which is as far back as I have been able to find records. Last year, HPD made less than half the arrests it made in 2007.
Note: Data from City of Houston CAFRs. Notes from those reports indicate from 2013-2015 a computer conversion caused some arrests to be reported in the wrong year. The solid line represents the data reported in each CAFR. The dotted line averages arrests for those years.
I asked a few officers about the decline and they mostly attribute it to the decline in manpower at the department. But the number of uniformed officers has actually stayed relatively stable since 2002, ranging from about 4,700-5,300. We are currently at about 5,100 officers. But the civilian support staff has been cut from 2,200 to 1,200. Of course, this has necessitated officers being taken off the street and reassigned to desk jobs.
That makes the overall headcount reduction about 16%. If you take into account the City’s population growth over the last fifteen years, the reduction in headcount in relative terms has been about 29%. But this drop in headcount cannot account for arrests falling by half.
There has been a trend in law enforcement generally toward fewer arrests. Since 2002, arrests in the US and in Texas are both down a little over 20%, but still far less than HPD.
DPS keeps track of the arrests for murder, rape, robbery, assault, burglary and theft for every law enforcement agency in Texas. According to this data, HPD arrests for these more serious crimes has fallen about 30% since 2009. The other large cities in Texas saw similar declines in this metric as did the Harris County Sheriff’s Office. I suppose it is somewhat comforting that the decline in arrests appears to be less severe in more serious offenses.
Of course, this data begs the question about how our officers are spending their time. According to the City data, there were only about ten arrests per officer last year. According to DPS’s data there were only two arrests per officer for the more serious crimes it tracks. In Texas, only Dallas had fewer arrests per officer than Houston, but the numbers for the other large cities were also surprisingly low.
The FBI collects data on law enforcement agencies nationwide. Its data show that in 2016, the most recent data available, HPD had about the same number of total employees per 100,000 in population as the national average (282 vs. 286) but somewhat less than the average for cities over 250,000 (339). But that data also shows that law enforcement agencies made an average of about 20 arrests per employee. In 2016, HPD was about half that number.
The most remarkable thing about the decline to me is that there has been virtually no discussion about these metrics. There is virtually no discussion that HPD continues to solve only a small fraction of the robberies, burglaries and rapes committed in the City. You would think that somewhere along the way some public official might have asked why arrests keep going down every year and why HPD is only making two arrests per officer per year for serious crimes. Yet these metrics seems to have not aroused the curiosity of anyone. I can assure you that would never happen in the private sector.
Obviously, we are all concerned about public safety, a concern that is stoked by the nightly parade of horrors on our “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” nightly news coverage. That concern has prompted taxpayers to throw ever more dollars at law enforcement. In the last 15 years we have doubled what we spend on HPD. And even that understates the true costs. There is hardly a subdivision in the City that is not paying for either private security or off-duty officers to patrol their neighborhoods. And almost every school district and university now have their own police. If we could actually add up what we are paying for the 50+ law enforcement agencies in the County and all of the private security, I think we would all be stunned at the total cost. The question we should be asking ourselves is: What are we getting for all those millions?