Sunday, February 12, 2006

Violent crime rise not just a Houston problem

The NY Times had an interesting article today detailing the rise in violent crime across many major cities, not just Houston - cities like Boston, Philly, San Francisco, Kansas City, and Phoenix (don't miss the comparative graph). It seems the primary cause is extremely difficult for police to counter: people are simply escalating arguments very rapidly until they shoot someone.

And while such crime in the 1990's was characterized by battles over gangs and drug turf, the police say the current rise in homicides has been set off by something more bewildering: petty disputes that hardly seem the stuff of fistfights, much less gunfire or stabbings.

Suspects tell the police they killed someone who "disrespected" them or a family member, or someone who was "mean mugging" them, which the police loosely translate as giving a dirty look. And more weapons are on the streets, giving people a way to act on their anger.

Police Chief Nannette H. Hegerty of Milwaukee calls it "the rage thing."

"We're seeing a very angry population, and they don't go to fists anymore, they go right to guns," she said. "A police department can have an effect on drugs or gangs. But two people arguing in a home, how does the police department go in and stop that?"


While arguments have always made up a large number of homicides, the police say the trigger point now comes faster.

"Traditionally, you could see the beef growing and maybe hitting the volatile point," said Daniel Coleman, the commander of the homicide unit in Boston. "Now we see these things, they're flashes, they're very unpredictable. Even five years ago, in what started as a fight or dispute, maybe you'd have a knife shown. Now it's an automatic default to a firearm."

And the paragraph on Houston:
In Houston, where homicides rose 24 percent last year, disputes were by far the largest category, 113 out of 336 killings. Officials were alarmed by the increase in murders well before Hurricane Katrina swelled the city's population by 150,000 people in September; the police say 18 homicides were related to evacuees.
Getting to the root psychology:
Chief Corwin of Kansas City said that in the hardest-hit neighborhoods, people had explained it as a "lack of hope." "If I don't have skills, I don't have training, my socioeconomic situation looks desperate, do I really have hope?" he said. "I think that ties into the anger. If the only thing I have is my respect, that's what I carry on the street. If someone disrespects me, they've done the ultimate to me."
And the small piece of good news for law-abiding citizens:
"It's hard for people to look at it in depth and understand that they're not likely to be a victim if they get along with their family members and neighbors and don't live a high-risk lifestyle," said Darrel Stephens, the police chief in Charlotte.
Bottom line: HPD might be able to curtail some of the recent spike due to NOLA gangs, but there is another component that will be much harder - if not impossible - to alleviate.


At 8:34 AM, February 13, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even though I have worked in the Criminal Justice system for 18 years, I was stunned to see the number of murders committed from arguments. However, I suppose some or most of this should not be entirely unexpected. The stress that all people live under has increased exponentially. It has come from a variety of sources. Certainly, an unsettled security climate, an uneven economic recovery, and falling real wages can be considered causes. But, I believe that the technological advances of the last 15 years, combined with the insatiable consumerism that took hold in the 90s has put massive increased stress on everyone. This stress shows in the increased surliness at stores, road rage on the streets, and increased levels of domestic violence in all neighborhoods, not just poor ones.

Imagine being poor, watching TV with 22 minutes of commercials blasting every hour, knowing that you cannot have it. Every socio-economic group is urged to spend more to show their worth as a person, from SUVs and big houses to suburbanites, to SUVs and jewelry to urban youth.

The employed are stressed by ever-increasing work hours to pay for all of these goods, while the poor are constantly reminded that they are lessers for not owning these things. In a society that glorifies violence, it only seems reasonable that some of this stress will be expressed in gunfire.

At 8:36 AM, February 13, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

but there is another component that will be much harder - if not impossible - to alleviate

I wouldn't say it's impossible. On a per capita basis, we have definitely have some room for improvement. And the uptick in murders is only in certain US cities; murders continue to decline in NY, Chicago, LA, and DC. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned from them.

At 9:18 AM, February 13, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

RJ: I would say the lesson from those cities is that you can gentrify your way out of violent crime. If you can pump up housing costs so only the top quartile can afford it, then, surprise, the poor (and more violence-prone) leave, and the wealthy (and less violence-prone) enter.

But really, this is just shifting the problem outside your city limits, not solving the core problem. Maybe Houston could just de-annex parts of the southwest and northeast sides into new towns called, say, "Newark, TX" and "Detroit, TX" - or maybe even "New New Orleans, TX"? ;-)

At 11:16 AM, February 13, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

On a related not, the New Orleans Times-Picayune had a predictably one-sided article on the increase in homicides in Houston.

The article was correct that Houston's murder rate was up before the evacuees arrived. It was also correct that the poor are disproportionately affected...from BOTH cities. Where they went off a cliff was suggesting Houston's murder rate was out of control. It is not. It is merely higher than we like to see it.

Even when they reported the numbers, they missed the point. They reported New Orleans' murders at 265 in 2004, while Houston's was 278. The fact that New Orleans is less than One-Fourth the population of Houston, and therefore has 4 TIMES the murder rate was lost on the reporter.

At 11:39 AM, February 13, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you look carefully at the actually cases, I believe you'll find that many, if not most, are "drug" traffic related. And therein lies a hidden, or perhaps forgotten truth. So many choose to live off the underground econcomy which, being illegal to begin with, has it's own rules. It may not be the case that a certain segment of the population chooses to live off the drug economy, perhaps they fall into it because they have few alternatives. But for whatever reason, a much larger percentage of the general population chooses to live on the underground economy than the "mainstream" would care to believe. And, why not? It beats flipping burgers for minimum wage.

At 1:18 PM, February 13, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

RJ: I would say the lesson from those cities is that you can gentrify your way out of violent crime. If you can pump up housing costs so only the top quartile can afford it, then, surprise, the poor (and more violence-prone) leave, and the wealthy (and less violence-prone) enter.

T -

That explanation does work in some instances. However, in NYC, the crime rate dropped dramatically first, and then the city experienced wide-spread gentrification. Not the other way around.

You are right to point out the issue of city limits... we really do need to be looking at metro data for this to be a more even comparison. Or yes, we could de-annex Sharpstown and Gulfton to improve our numbers... ;-)


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