Houston ends year with slight uptick in homicides
One of the last homicide victims of 2018 died early Monday morning — shot to death in southwest Houston.
Police officers arrived at the Lundren Park Apartments and found her lying outside the complex, bleeding from several gunshot wounds. Paramedics pronounced her dead at the scene.
Residents reported hearing a “verbal altercation between a female and an unknown male” just before shots rang out, police said.
The still-unidentified woman’s death marked the 279th homicide in Houston in 2018, although the tally is not official. The toll was a slight rise from 2017, when 269 people met violent ends within city limits.
Local law enforcement leaders attributed many of the fatalities to domestic violence, gang violence, and robbery-related killings.
“It’s too many,” Police Chief Art Acevedo said. “If we got rid of domestic violence deaths, we would be dozens lower than where we are right now.”
Acevedo said that although more people died in violent deaths in 2018, he believed 2017’s body count — 269 homicides — was artificially low because Hurricane Harvey depressed criminal activity in late August and September.
“We’re still having too many people killed in our city,” the chief said. “Having said that, when you look at the three-to-five year time frame, we’re tracking in the right direction.”
Houston Police Officers’ Union President Joe Gamaldi said he believed persistent gang violence — and the department’s lack of police staffing or other resources - figured in increase in the number of homicides within the city.
The Bayou City’s 2018 unofficial homicide tally of 279 represented a 3.7 percent increase from 2017. But it is 22 fewer than 2016, when 301 people died violent deaths in Houston.
At the same time, the 90 homicides recorded in unincorporated Harris County dipped slightly from the 96 people killed in 2017, according to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.
Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said the department had focused on enhancing its violent crime unit, while prioritizing the investigation of non-fatal shootings as well.
“We feel that’s been a helpful tool,” said Gonzalez, who previously served as a Houston homicide investigator.
The sheriff’s department also focused on high-crime areas, with “hot spot” enforcement in some areas in north Houston, Gonzalez said.
About 40 percent of the county’s homicides were related to domestic violence cases, said Lt. Christopher Sandoval with the homicide unit. An additional 27 percent were robbery-related. Unlike the city, county investigators have determined that only two of the homicides were gang-related homicides, he said.
The county was hoping targeted patrols in northwest Harris County — site of many of last year’s homicides — would help further reduce such crimes in 2019. The department was also trying to focus on reducing domestic violence homicides with the department’s recent implementation of a “Safe Surrender” program, in which the department would temporarily store firearms turned in by people who have protective orders filed against them in domestic violence cases.
Law enforcement and advocates for victims of domestic violence note that relationships often turn fatal when the abused partner leaves.
“We’re hoping the safe surrender will drop some of those domestic violence related murders,” Sandoval said.
Advocates for victims of domestic abuse cited anecdotal evidence indicating that dozens of victims- mostly women - died in domestic violence homicides in the city in the past year.
“It’s been an troubling year of domestic-violence homicides,” said Amy Smith, with the Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council, noting that previously in 2017 a total of 29 women died in such incidents. “We’re not sure what has been driving it.”
Despite 2018’s rise in homicides, independent experts pointed out that the city’s crime remains far below the violence that plagued Houston in the early 1990s, when more than 600 people died in one year. The state’s homicide rate has likewise plummeted over the last three decades.
“You’re talking a figure half the rate of the 1991 homicides, yet the population of Houston has continued to climb over those years,” said Larry Karson, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Houston-Downtown. “That’s the real story. These little fluctuations, I suspect, are not statistically significant.”