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As his campaign revs up, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill White is pointing voters to his record as mayor of Houston from 2004 through 2009. On his campaign Web site and in a thank-you letter published Jan. 2 in the Houston Chronicle, he brags about the city’s crime rates.
Though White in his public statements has stopped short of claiming he reduced crime in the nation's fourth-largest city, his Web site biography notes that during his tenure as mayor, he "saw Houston’s crime rates drop to the lowest levels in more than 25 years."
White's critics have accused him of being soft on crime, and the issue is likely to emerge in the governor's race. We decided to investigate whether White's statement about the decrease in Houston crime was true.
Statistics provided by his campaign confirm that the crime rate overall hit a 25-year low during his administration. That measure includes three nonviolent property crimes (such as burglary) as well as four major violent crimes (murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault). The White campaign's numbers, which were generated by the Houston Police Department for the years 1980 through 2008, show that the city’s 2008 total crime rate -- 6,080 offenses per 100,000 residents -- was the lowest of any of those years. In fact, 2006, 2007 and 2008 had the three lowest total crime rates in the 29 years of data offered by the campaign.
To double-check the numbers, we compared White’s statistics with those of the Texas Department of Public Safety, which collects data from local law enforcement agencies for the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program. The DPS numbers for Houston did not perfectly match the police department’s because the agencies use different population estimates in their calculations. However, the discrepancies were small and did not undermine White’s assertion: In the DPS data starting with 1980, 2008 was also the year with the lowest total crime rate: 6,053.7 offenses per 100,000 residents.
Looking only at violent crime in Houston, the picture changes somewhat. There was at least one year -- 1998 being the most recent -- when the violent crime rate was lower than any year during White's tenure. And both the White campaign and Clete Snell, chairman of the Criminal Justice Department at the University of Houston Downtown, note that Houston experienced an uptick in violent crime in 2005, White’s second year in office, that they attribute to the influx of Hurricane Katrina evacuees.
These days, few public officials can legitimately take credit for reducing crime locally. That's because crime rates have been trending down all across the country for years, in some cases to record lows. According to FBI data, the nation's total crime rate in 2008 was down 29 percent from 1983, 25 years earlier.
Experts don't agree on the reasons for the persistent trend, but have suggested such factors as rising incarceration rates, the aging of the population and improved police practices.
It is important to note that crime trends do not follow straight lines — they can fluctuate year-to-year. Still, according to the DPS data, total crime in Houston has dropped 31 percent since 1983. And the decline was under way before White took office.
Nevertheless, when the Houston FBI office gave White the FBI Director’s 2007 Community Leadership Award, his efforts to combat crime were among the reasons cited. "Mayor White is being recognized for his outstanding contributions toward improving the quality of life in the City of Houston through his commitment to law enforcement and the prevention of crime," a statement from the FBI said.
Summing up: Although experts debate the reasons for the downward trend in crime nationwide, White is right that the total crime rate in Houston hit a 25-year low during his time as mayor. We give him a True.
Houston crime statistics, compiled by Houston Police Department, provided by Bill White gubernatorial campaign
Houston crime statistics 1980-1998, Texas Department of Public Safety
Crime in Texas 1999-2008, Texas Department of Public Safety
Interview with Clete Snell, chairman of Criminal Justice Department, University of Houston Downtown, Jan. 6, 2009
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