Now’s the time to take back the city’s mean streets: Houston’s major crime problem requires some modern solutions

Houston is facing a serious crime problem. This is born out by statistics, crime headlines and everyday experiences on the streets of Houston. Mayor Sylvester Turner has an opportunity to make changes that will reduce crime now and improve the situation in the long term. The mayor should make changes to the Houston Police Department in three areas: fresh leadership at the top levels, new tools for measuring success and proactive policing to attack crime at the roots.

Statistically, Houston has become the ninth-most dangerous city over 500,000 population in the United States, as reported by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report. In 2015, Houston had 303 murders, anearly 25 percent increase from the 242 murders in 2014. The clearance rate for burglaries is only 6 percent, less than half the national rate of 12.4 percent reported by the FBI. Houston has recently had a succession of violent crimes that grabbed national headlines. May 17 was marked by the tragic murder of 11-year-old Josue Flores. Less than two weeks later, a shootout in west Houston left two suspects dead, two police officers wounded and three others injured. Petty crime from panhandling to public intoxication to open drug use is the stuff of everyday stories for Houstonians in all parts of the city.

The new mayor needs to bring in a fresh team to lead the Houston Police Department. HPD has a number of capable leaders; however, our existing police leadership alone cannot make this happen. This crime problem calls for a paradigm shift in policing techniques. The new team will need to end the current 1960s-era policing methods used in Houston. New leadership could implement training and systems that will ensure the capable officers in the department learn the new system properly.

A fundamental axiom of business management is that good measurement is the key to good management. Part of the problem is that the primary measurement used in Houston is the outdated measurement of police response times. This is a reactive measure, based on how police handle crimes that have already happened. An important first step for the new leadership will be to shift focus to the more important metric of crime rates. Lower crime rates are the measure of success and crime data becomes the tool for proactive crime prevention.

The second, equally important step is for the HPD to measure how it is doing block-by-block at the neighborhood level. The department should use modern, proven techniques to spot patterns of criminal activity; identify potential targets of criminals; and deal with petty crime before it leads to violent crime. The information should also be used to introduce real accountability for results into the department. These techniques, part of a comprehensive system called CompStat, will help the department use information on criminal activity to outsmart criminals and engage in proactive policing. These techniques have been used to reduce crime by 40 percent or more in dozens of cities where it has been deployed, including New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Indianapolis and San Diego. This system is not new. It has been tried and found effective for more than 20 years.

The problem is provably real. The solutions are not easy, but they are far from impossible. It will take a significant political commitment to execute the technology and training portion of the program. In dollar terms, this commitment will be much less. The HPD Foundation or Greater Houston Partnership should consider funding the implementation effort. Any decision by the mayor to go outside the department for a new police chief will be unpopular; nevertheless, it is what needs to be done. HPD needs a leader with experience in utilizing analytics, holding people accountable and targeting crime at its source. It’s long past time to do what is right and give the city of Houston the modern, effective policing that its citizens deserve and its officers are fully capable of providing.

Wall is a commercial real estate broker, specializing in tenant representation.


Originally published July 2, 2016 in the Houston Chronicle