May 6, 2006, 1:06AM
'Katrina effect' blamed for rise in homicides
City would have seen a 7.8 percent decrease without evacuee-related deaths, HPD says

By ALLAN TURNER
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

Violence among Hurricane Katrina evacuees, much of it occurring in southwest Houston neighborhoods targeted in a new anti-crime campaign, accounted for nearly a quarter of homicides in the city so far this year, police officials said Friday.

Since Jan. 1, police have investigated 124 homicides, 29 of which involved evacuees as victims or attackers, said Capt. Dale Brown of the Houston Police Department. There were 103 homicides over the same period last year; without the evacuee-related deaths this year, the city would have experienced a 7.8 percent decrease.

In the last four months of 2005, evacuees were victims or suspects in 18 homicides, accounting for 13 percent of such crimes during that period. A total 336 killings were investigated last year, representing a 22 percent increase over 2004.

"As it relates to murders, there's a definite Katrina effect, and it's most noticeable since December," Brown said.

Brown's analysis of homicide trends — the numbers were increasing before Katrina evacuees arrived last fall — came as police began evaluating a 10-day experiment in which a mobile command unit was placed in high-crime neighborhoods.

The unit, a large recreational vehicle, was designed to encourage residents to cooperate with authorities and to signal an increased police presence in the area to potential offenders.

Brown said much of the violence in the targeted neighborhoods — police patrol districts 17, 18, and 19 — is tied to gangs. This year, 37 homicides have been reported in those areas.

"The level of fear locks people behind doors," he said. "That was true here more than in any other place in the city. ... Gangs truly are violent crime machines. Once, one person would be a serial killer. Now we have groups."

Brown conceded that "we still haven't broken the back of murders," but Police Chief Harold Hurtt on Friday said he expects "to see a turnaround in overall violent crime, hopefully by the end of June."

While Katrina evacuees contributed to the growing homicide numbers, Hurtt noted that upward trend in Houston was evident as early as last April or May. Hurtt said after that increase was detected, a city-federal task force was created to target violent offenders in southwest Houston neighborhoods. Five hundred suspects were arrested, he said.

Brown said Houston homicides peaked in 1979-83, a period when the department was understaffed as the city experienced a population boom, and again in 1989-91, as the department suffered a three-year hiring freeze as a result of the mid-1980s oil crash. A record 701 slayings were recorded in 1981.

The latest growth in lethal crime has occurred as the police department again has found itself short-staffed. Hurtt, who has advocated graduating six police academy classes annually, noted that the "framework and the spirit and the knowledge" for community policing — as represented by the recent mobile command center experiment — is in place.

"But it is extremely human resource intensive," he said, "and that's the problem."

He said the department currently has 4,805 officers, or 2.2 officers per 1,000 residents. At its height in 2001, the department had 5,400 officers. The national average is 2.8 officers per 1,000 residents.

By comparison, Hurtt said, New York City currently has 4.8 officers per 1,000 residents; Chicago, 4.7 officers; and Los Angeles, 2.5.

Hurtt said HPD has lost about 800 officers to retirement in the past two years and faces more than 900 possible retirements in the next four. The average Houston police officer is 41 years old; the average patrol officer, 38, Hurtt said.