Are we in a crime wave?
Around the nation, to varying degrees, violent crime is surging. In Fort Worth, homicides are up slightly over 2020, when the city recorded more than it had in decades, and police see a disturbing rise in gun violence generally.
Part of that has been some attention-grabbing shootings, the kind that sparks fear and concern that crime is reaching a dangerous level. One was a shootout near the end of a well-attended Como neighborhood party, where eight people were wounded. The other, in which a man was wounded in Sundance Square as he and his girlfriend were attacked, is the type of crime that, while rare, sparks worries that public places often considered safe are no longer so.
But some perspective is in order. While these kinds of incidents draw attention and demand a strong police response, there doesn’t appear to be a surge yet of lesser violence or property crimes in Fort Worth. Those offenses reinforce the feeling that crime is out of control because people feel less secure in their own neighborhoods.
The pandemic skews statistical comparisons because of 2020’s low level of public activity for so many. But stacking the first quarter of 2019, before coronavirus, against the same time period this year, indicates the situation is far from out of hand.
Overall, crimes against persons are down in that stretch, though the worst, homicide and aggravated assault, spiked in a way no one should brush aside. Property crime has dipped, including many fewer vehicle thefts.
Second-quarter statistics, not yet available from the Fort Worth Police Department, will provide a better understanding, as January through March of this year saw some reduced activity amid COVID-19 spikes that preceded the availability of vaccines.
The increase in violence, here and in other large cities, is troubling. Year to date, for instance, Houston is recording 35% more murders. But it’s important to note that crime remains vastly reduced from the nightmarish rates of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Fort Worth, for instance, has seen a 63 percent decrease in the most serious crimes since 1995, even while the population has nearly doubled since then, police leaders told City Council members in a recent presentation.
There are several theories about why violence may be rising. The stress of the pandemic — months of fear about our own health and that of loved ones, unemployment and other economic uncertainty, disruptions to the basic rhythms of life — has not melted away. For youths, restricted to online life for so long, there’s pent-up energy that may be channeled into mischief and worse.
Police also point to increased gang activity. And some see a surge in more powerful weapons, guns that do greater damage and allow more shots to be fired quickly, making many shootings even worse than they would have been in the past.
Fort Worth police are responding by surging resources toward gun violence and gangs, seeking to track trends, seize more weapons and engage community members for information. In Arlington, police are seeking to boost federal gun-crime prosecutions. In Dallas, Mayor Eric Johnson wants the city to add 275 police officers, an ambitious but difficult idea as police are seeing increased retirements and other departures.
It will take sensitivity and skill to balance additional policing with the desire to improve relationships with communities that have seen a history of abuse by officers. Cities continue to debate shifting resources to community programs, mental-health diversions and other ideas to address the roots of crime. Smart police leaders are on board for much of it, but addressing violence while losing officers is a tough task.
Fort Worth has the tools to do it right. The Crime Control and Prevention sales tax, which voters overwhelmingly authorized again last year, provides ample resources for the department. The new City Council should be focused on the issue, after a campaign season in which crime was a top concern in nearly all parts of Fort Worth. They also oversee the distribution and effectiveness of the sales tax funds, and they must insist upon steady progress in bringing violence down.
Whether an overall crime increase is on the way or mostly a matter of perception, it’s an issue that touches residents deeply, especially the communities that see the bulk of violence. When voters are concerned about the safety of their families and homes, they quickly make their displeasure known at the ballot box.
Leaders at all levels should respond well before the crime rate — or the perception of it — gets out of hand.