Crime in Texas – Perceptions, Realities, and Data Challenges

Texas voters generally think crime is increasing in their community. To check that perception, the latest FBI data gives us a rough sketch of the reality on the ground. However, the actual situation for many communities in Texas and for the state as a whole is still hazy given gaps in the data.

PERCEPTION

In January, Texas 2036 conducted a poll of Texas voters to get their sense of important issues including energy, education, health care, justice, and safety. The poll presented voters with the following statement and asked whether or not they agreed: “There has been an increase in crime in your community since last year.”

Agree Disagree Depends/Unsure
TOTAL 47% 36% 17%

Looking through the crosstabs (party, race, education, and sex in particular) there’s a notable consistency – those who agree that local crime is on the rise consistently outnumber those who disagree, and in roughly the same ratio. Interesting deviations are in age, income, and the urban/rural divide. Older Texans are more likely to agree that local crime is increasing, as are Texans that have a household income below $120,000 and rural Texans. Perhaps the most striking were those voters who were in the broad Houston region (57% agree; 26% disagree) and the DFW region (38% agree; 41% disagree).

REALITY

It’s worth asking the question – Did crime actually increase from 2020 to 2021? With the benefit of preliminary FBI data for 2021 released last week, we can get an initial, albeit incomplete answer.

Search below for a major Texas city to see the latest crime numbers, as well as the percent change in the number of crimes between 2020-2021.

Even this incomplete data is useful. First, when compared to the Crime in Texas Reports compiled by the Texas Department of Public Safety, we can get some historical context for these specific jurisdictions. Second, most Texans live near these medium-to-large population centers, and the data can offer them signs of hope and early warnings about crime trends near their communities. Comparing these statistics against the cross tabs dividing the state by regions can allow us to compare and contrast perceptions against reality.

Perceptions* Reality
Base n
(total = 1001)
Agree that Crime Increased Disagree that Crime Increased Depends / Unsure Net Perception
(Agree - Disagree)
Change in Violent Crime Change in Property Crime
Central Texas 135 49% 36% 7% 13% 4% -7%
DFW Area 300 38% 41% 9% -3% -5% -5%
Houston Area 248 57% 26% 9% 31% -4% -3%
South Texas 192 45% 43% 5% 2% 8% -1%
East Texas 58 37% 40% 15% -3% -10% -10%
West Texas 68 53% 27% 13% 26% -4% -10%
*The voter poll Texas 2036 conducted produced cross tabs according to broad “Combined Media Markets,” which divided the state according to 6 geographic regions.

† Figures correspond to the combined data from the following jurisdictions that reported to the FBI according to their geographical region: DFW-Area – Arlington, Dallas, Denton, Fort Worth, Frisco, Garland, Grand Prairie, Irving, McKinney, Mesquite, Plano, and Richardson; Houston-Area – Houston, League City, Pasadena, Pearland, and Sugar Land; East Texas – Beaumont and Tyler; Central Texas – Austin, College Station, Killeen, Round Rock, and Waco; South Texas – Brownsville, Corpus Christi, Edinburg, El Paso, Laredo, McAllen, and San Antonio; West Texas – Abilene, Amarillo, Lubbock, Midland, Odessa, San Angelo, and Wichita Falls.

One observation we can make – in spite of the pessimism expressed by Houston-area voters, the reporting Houston-area jurisdictions actually saw crime go down. Combining figures from those jurisdictions, the Houston Area saw a 4% decrease in violent crime and a 3% decrease in property crime from 2020 to 2021. Granted, our polling data does not get granular enough at the community level to draw to decisive insights – for example, while property crime declined as a whole across these communities, Sugar Land saw a 15% increase. The rates of decline were surprisingly similar to the combined figures from DFW jurisdictions where violent crime and property crime both declined by 5%. 

DATA CHALLENGES

This preliminary data – the Quarterly Uniform Crime Report – is derived from the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS) reports that are voluntarily submitted by individual agencies to the FBI. Ideally, the quarterly report would provide trends by region and aggregate population groups. Instead, the final quarterly report for 2021 was released on March 21 of this year, and with it came the announcement that because too few law enforcement agencies reported, only data from city agencies with populations of 100,000 or greater would be available.

The drop in the rate at which agencies are reporting their information to the FBI is remarkable. This low reporting rate likely has a number of explanations, but it is nearly certain that a recent federal reporting transition that began in 2016 is playing an outsized role. As a result, 2021 was the first year that the FBI stopped accepting reports based on the older “Summary Reporting System” methodology, now relying exclusively on NIBRS reports from local agencies.

The transition to NIBRS in Texas has been a years-long process. The Legislature established a statutory goal in 2015 to have “all local law enforcement agencies” implementing NIBRS-sufficient reporting systems by September 1, 2019. A 2017 report from DPS to the Legislature demonstrates that Texas has made significant strides in adopting NIBRS. At that point in time, 97 agencies were NIBRS-certified, covering only 14.4% of the population. As of January 2022, 1,015 local law enforcement agencies were NIBRS-certified and reporting to DPS. This is still short of the “all local law enforcement agencies” goal in statute – 1,015 agencies represents about 37% of the total 2,716 active law enforcement agencies in Texas.

IMPROVING CRIME DATA COLLECTION

While the current 1,000 NIBRS agencies almost certainly cover a majority of Texans, this legislative interim is an important opportunity for lawmakers to check in again. One of the interim charges announced by the Speaker last month asks lawmakers to consider whether or not a standardized incident reporting requirement would be appropriate for Texas law enforcement. The impediments to reaching the statutory goal, and the consistency with which local agencies in Texas are able to submit NIBRS reports, should be examined as well.

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