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Texas' violent crime rate increased in 2017, while the number of police per resident shrank

Experts cautioned against saying the slight increase in crime was due to the decreased police-to-resident ratio.

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Texas’ violent crime rate inched up slightly in 2017, continuing an upward trajectory that began in 2015. Meanwhile, the ratio of police officers to the total population decreased to its lowest level in decades, according to FBI data released Monday.

The bureau's statistics showed that there were only 1.5 officers for every 1,000 Texas residents last year. That number’s down from two Texas officers for every 1,000 residents in 2016. The state ratio has hovered at or above two officers per 1,000 residents for the last decade.

Nationwide, the ratio showed a similar dip, from 2.4 officers per 1,000 residents in 2016 to two in 2017.

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Texas’ officer-to-population ratio is now one of the lowest in the country. Only seven states — Alabama, Indiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Ohio, Washington and Wyoming — had lower ratios last year.

“The good part about the data is that now we know,” said Charley Wilkison, executive director of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas. “The bad part is we always knew.”

Wilkison said there is no “silver bullet” reason explaining the recent decline in officers in Texas, but rather a number of factors that have been brewing for a while. He said fewer people want to become police officers as the risks associated with the profession — both personal and financial — increase.

“You work for less money, more physical risk and a chance that you won’t be able to draw the retirement that you were offered and recruited for,” Wilkison said, referring to recent police pension funding problems at major Texas cities.

Alex Piquero, a criminology professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, said no one has the “magic number” for the correct number of officers in any given city. But he suspects officer retirements could be contributing to the decline.

“It’s more about replacement,” Piquero said. “You have people who get hired and then people who leave, and those numbers might not always equate to each other.”

The decline happened as Texas’ violent crime rate increased to 438.9 incidents per 100,000 people, from 433.8 incidents per 100,000. Over the same period, the national violent crime rate decreased slightly — from 397.5 to 394 incidents per 100,000 people.

Included in the FBI’s violent crimes category is homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.

But Piquero cautioned against drawing concrete connections between the rising violent crime rate and the falling officer-to-population ratio, citing a number of “complicating factors.”

To see what’s really going on, researchers will need more data, Piquero said, adding that researchers need three years of data at a minimum to identify trends. John Worrall, a criminology professor at UT-Dallas, agreed. He added that the number of overall police officers in a city is not always the most important metric.

“It’s important to look at what the officers are doing, and how the money is spent,” Worrall said.

While the violent crime rate in Texas increased last year against a backdrop of decreasing national numbers, the state’s violent crime rate remains relatively low. To be sure, it is lower than it was in the 1980s and the 1990s, FBI numbers show. Texas' violent crime rate peaked in 1991 at 840.1 incidents per 100,000 people, according to the FBI.

The 2017 FBI report also showed that property crimes — including arson, burglary, larceny theft and motor vehicle theft — declined from 2016 to 2017, from 2,759 incidents to 2,562.6 incidents per 100,000 people. Texas’ property crime rate has been decreasing over the past decade and mirrors a decrease in the national rate.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Dallas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2018/09/25/texas-crime-rate-increased-2017-ratio-police-people-shrank/.

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