Texas outpaced the nation's increase in murders and other violent crimes last year compared to 2015, according to the latest crime data released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation Monday.
In Texas and across the country, violent crime rates ticked up for the second year after record low levels in 2014. Property crime fell again, continuing a long trend downward and making the overall crime rate dip slightly.
But violent crime in Texas is rising at a faster rate than the nation. While the rate increased 3.2 percent nationwide in 2016, it jumped 5.3 percent in Texas, according to the federally-collected data. And Texas’ rates are higher overall, with 434 violent crimes recorded per 100,000 people compared to 397 for the country as a whole.
The FBI counts murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault as violent crimes. The bureau categorizes burglary, larceny and theft, motor vehicle theft and arson as property crimes.
Even with the recent uptick in violent crime, rates are still relatively low. The violent crime rate in Texas is down 16 percent from ten years ago.
Alex Piquero, a professor of criminology at the University of Texas at Dallas, said it’s important not to jump to conclusions based on two-year trends.
“The increases are ticking up, but I don’t think that they’re cause for alarm yet,” he said. “What they are cause for is for people to pay closer attention to see what’s going on at the local level, at the state level and at the national level and address those problems in those contexts.”
The data release comes at a time when the Trump administration has shifted toward “tough-on-crime” policies. President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have said the country is in the midst of a crime wave.
“For the sake of all Americans, we must confront and turn back the rising tide of violent crime. And we must do it together,” Sessions said in a statement following the release of the FBI data. “The Department of Justice is committed to working with our state, local, and tribal partners across the country to deter violent crime, dismantle criminal organizations and gangs, stop the scourge of drug trafficking, and send a strong message to criminals that we will not surrender our communities to lawlessness and violence.”
But Piquero said it’s hard to pinpoint the cause of the recent crime surge with only two years of information.
“You need a longer trend to look at what might be producing these effects,” he said. “When people start saying, ‘Oh it’s illegal immigration, or it’s gangs or it’s drugs’...Those are easy answers and they could all be right...at the same time and they could all be wrong.”
Derek Cohen, a policy expert at the right-leaning Texas Public Policy Foundation said crime is a local issue, so finding answers at the state or national level is difficult. For example, Chicago — which leads the nation in murders — needs to figure out how to solve Chicago’s problems, which may be very different than Houston’s, he said.
“We must empower local governments to react to the issues at hand,” said Cohen, the deputy director of the foundation’s Center for Effective Justice. “Whatever the root causes are are going to be different between communities.”
Some advocates for prison reform said the data, which shows an overall decrease in crime when you include property crimes, should not be taken out of context.
“You have to look beyond the relatively small differences in the number of violent crimes,” said Meme Styles, president of Measure, a Texas data and research organization, in a release by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “The overall trend is clear, and this year’s data has not changed that trend. We are living in a safe society. We should be doing everything we can to push evidence-based policies that will retain those gains by strengthening families and getting people back to work.”
In Texas, the murder rate bumped up faster than the country, too, with nearly 1,500 murders in 2016 compared to more than 1,300 the year before. The state’s 2016 rate of 5.3 murders per 100,000 matches the national number.
The federal data also shows that four of the state’s five largest cities had more murders in 2016 than the year before. Houston stood alone with a drop — from 303 murders to 301.
But 2017 may tell a different story. Crime reports in the largest cities show downward trends in murder rates for the first half of 2017. By June, Houston saw 30 less murders than it had by that point last year, and San Antonio dropped by eight. In July, Dallas was down five year-over-year and Austin had six fewer murders.
Violent crime rates overall were still trending upward in most of the cities, led largely by increases in aggravated assaults and robberies.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Dallas and the Texas Public Policy Foundation have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors is available here.