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Mayor Turner, Police Chief Address Rising Homicide and Assault Activity in Houston

Following reports of multiple shootings and other crimes over the weekend, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Police Chief Art Acevedo addressed the issue at a Monday press conference.

Turner shared year-to-date numbers indicating there have been 44 homicides in the city with five of those involving teenage victims, and another 116 non-fatal shootings just since January 1. Last Saturday night, there were reportedly at least 11 shootings and two killed, and the mayor said the weekend violence was attributed to gang activity, narcotics trafficking, retaliations, and one road rage incident.

While asserting that the pandemic had played a role in the rising homicide and aggravated assault rates, Turner added, “however, you cannot blame everything the pandemic.”

“In Houston we have a situation we need to address in the city as we tackle the coronavirus as well.”

Turner said solutions would include additional resources for the Houston Police Department (HPD), but that the problem required “all hands on deck.” He called on residents to participate in combating crime in the city by reporting criminal activity to either Crime Stoppers Houston, the police department, or the mayor’s office.  

“Put yourself in some mother’s shoes, or some father’s shoes, or brother or sister’s shoes, whose son or daughter may have been seriously injured or killed. And so, we are asking faith-based leaders and other community leaders to please speak up and to participate in encouraging others to please provide this information.”

The mayor also echoed comments made by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) last week in calling out judges releasing felony suspects on minimal bond amounts.

“We ask that no [personal recognizance] or low bonds be given to people on their second, third, or fourth felony offenses.”

Harris County has continued to grapple with the fallout from judges and magistrates who elect to release repeat felony offenders on such bonds, even in some cases offenders facing murder charges, and last week Bettencourt introduced “Caitlynne’s Bill” to address the problem.

Some groups have also been advocating for more releases from the Harris County jail due to COVID-19 concerns, but many inmates identified by the Harris County sheriff for possible release were found to be ineligible.

Both Turner and Acevedo expressed support for misdemeanor bond reforms but said their concern now is over felony bond policy. Acevedo asserted that the best way to determine release eligibility for felony suspects would be via risk assessment tools rather than blanket policies.

Another trend plaguing Houston residents is so-called “street takeovers” in which large groups block off entire streets and intersections for racing and other activities.  Last month, according to local news station KHOU, a couple who witnessed such a takeover was shot at by suspects as they attempted to escape a crowd surrounding their vehicle.  

In addressing the street takeover problem, Acevedo warned that although police had not been making many arrests for misdemeanor crimes, last weekend they began doing so and were able to arrest 15 individuals associated with the street takeovers.

“The jail in terms of the [Joint Processing Center] is open, it’s back in business, and we’re starting to make arrests for the lower-level offenses, which means that we’re going to be searching your cars, we’re going to be searching your purses, we’re going to be finding the guns, and the other elements…of more serious crimes as we move forward.”

Acevedo said that 20 HPD detectives were moving to the homicide division, and that many officers that have been serving in administrative roles would also be in uniform and present in neighborhoods, adding as many as 300 eight-hour shifts in the city. 

Last year, the City of Houston approved an additional $4.1 million of federal CARES Act monies to pay for police overtime, and the police chief said these funds have not yet been exhausted. Houston also rejected calls to defund police, and increased HPD’s 2021 budget by $20 million, bringing the total to $964 million.

Acevedo also noted that the HPD task force working had been working closely with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms (ATF). In one instance, after learning a group of aggravated robbery suspects had been released on bond the same day they had been arrested, Acevedo said he was able to obtain federal ATF help in placing the group back in custody under federal charges.

“We are referring a lot more of our violent crimes…more habitual violent criminals to the federal system where we think we’re going to get quicker resolution and actually they’re being held behind bars while awaiting trial.”

Earlier Monday morning, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas Ryan Patrick stated on social media that he had instructed staff to help address violent gun crime in Houston by evaluating the possibility of filing federal charges in every shooting that occurred last weekend. 

Acevedo added that overall crime in the city was down by about 14 percent despite the rise in homicides and assaults.

Although Turner said the city was cash strapped, combating violent crime rates had become a number one priority, and he was hoping for additional funding from the federal government to offset city needs.

Turner also addressed current COVID-19 numbers at the conference, noting that there had been 1,005 cases in the past 14 days resulting in a positivity rate of 15.1 percent. There were also nine new deaths reported, bringing the total number of COVID-19 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic to 1,838. Houston’s estimated population is 2.3 million.

The mayor noted that although the city was continuing to vaccinate large numbers of residents, there were still not enough available vaccines. Turner added that he would be participating in a call with the White House and other mayors from across the nation on Friday to discuss increasing vaccination efforts.

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