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Murder by numbers 2013

The beginning of the new year means a look back at the homicide count for the previous year.

Homicides are up in unincorporated Harris County, where the Sheriff’s Office is reporting a nearly 20 percent uptick in 2013, preliminary year-end statistics show.

Killings in 2013 totaled 91 as of Tuesday – the second-highest tally in the past five years, and about a 19.7 percent increase from 2012, according to the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

Authorities said the 2013 figure appears to have been driven by a cluster of cases involving multiple victims.

Sheriff Adrian Garcia cited a Nov. 9 case at a Cypress house party where two high school students were fatally shot and 19 others were wounded. He also recalled an incident Nov. 20 in which a gunman shot five people at a northwest Harris County apartment complex. Three died.

“We don’t see that as a particular pattern,” Garcia said of the multi-victim cases. “These are just circumstances that have occurred this year and we hope they never repeat themselves.”

In Houston, preliminary data showed the homicide count was down from 2012, which ended with 217.

As of Dec. 20, the Houston Police Department recorded 199 slayings compared with 207 for the same time last year, according to Homicide Division Capt. Dwayne Ready. HPD’s latest reports show about a 3.8 percent decrease.

If the 2013 total remains below 217, it would be the second lowest since 1965, when 139 people were killed, HPD officials said. The lowest since that date was in 2011, which had 198.

[…]

Violent crime overall has been trending down for several years, both nationally and locally. By and large, crime experts say that violent crime has been experiencing slight fluctuations rather than sharp increases and decreases.

Phillip Lyons, a criminal justice professor at Sam Houston State University, said those decreasing figures may now be leveling off, showing some stabilization in crime statistics.

“We are at that point, where it seems as though there is overall stability, and that obviously means there are going to be some places that are reporting higher numbers than last year and other places that are reporting lower numbers than last year,” Lyons noted. “It all essentially averages out to not much change.”

See here and here for the previous installments of this story. I basically agree with Prof. Lyons, there really isn’t much happening here. The uptick in unincorporated Harris County is likely just statistical noise. If it goes up for a few years in a row, that may be something. A one year bump that isn’t that big in absolute terms and even smaller in per capita terms is not.

Here’s the sidebar to the story with numbers from the past five years:

Annual number of homicides in Houston and unincorporated Harris County in recent years:

City of Houston:

2009: 287

2010: 269

2011: 198

2012: 217

2013: 199 (As of Dec. 20, 2013)

Unincorporated Harris County

2009: 93

2010: 74

2011: 69

2012: 76

2013: 91 (As of Dec. 31, 2013)

If unincorporated Harris is up over 100 for the next couple of years that may be worrisome, but again keep in mind that the overall population there is rising, too. This chart would be a lot more meaningful if it included the number of homicides per 100,000 residents, as that is a number that will be better to compare over time. Consider the statement above about how 199 murders in Houston would be the second lowest since 1965 when there had been 139. Well, the population in Houston in 1965 would have been less than half what it is today, so 199 murders in 2013 is therefore significantly less – back of the envelope, it would have been about 14 per 100,000 in 1965 (I’m assuming a population halfway between the 1960 and 1970 Census numbers, which would be about one million) but only about 9.5 per 100,000 in 2013 (assuming a population of 2.1 million). Putting it that way, the total number of homicides in Houston was probably as low as it has ever been in a much longer time frame. When was the last time you heard someone say that?

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