In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Houstonians gained national acclaim for playing Good Samaritan to their neighbors 300 miles to the east.
But it didn’t take long for the warm feelings to peter out. Politicians, police and the media quickly began blaming Katrina evacuees for a supposed crime wave taking over Houston in the weeks and months following the storm.
The headlines in the Houston Chronicle highlight the tone of that conversation:
“New Orleans gang wars spill into Houston area”
“'Katrina effect' blamed for rise in homicides”
“New Orleans failures brought crime to Houston”
"We've had some out-and-out criminals coming over here," a Houston Police Department captain said in 2006. "Most evacuees are clearly law abiding. But there is no getting around the fact that some of these people were committing violent crimes in Louisiana, and they are committing them here."
Comments like that continued to dominate the press in the months following the storm, and they likely played a role in shaping public opinion.
Before long, concerns about crime turned to more serious outrage. A year after Houston welcomed evacuees, an overflow crowd at a Houston church confronted then-Mayor Bill White, demanding that he cut off evacuees’ assistance and ship them back to New Orleans. They cited crime concerns as the reason for their furor.
In February 2006, about 66 percent of Houston-area residents agreed “a major increase in violent crime has occurred in Houston because of the evacuees,” according to Kinder Houston Area Survey results.
But criminologist Sean Varano says they’re probably wrong.
“There’s very little evidence of a wholesale increase in crime,” said Varano, a professor at Roger Williams University who also does consulting work for police departments throughout New England.
Varano was the lead author of a 2010 study that largely debunked the Katrina crime myth. He was motivated to study the issue due to the rhetoric he saw coming from Houston leaders. “There was very loaded dialogue,” Varano said. “People were speaking in hyperbolic terms. They spoke of a crime wave… that made Houston a more violent, dangerous place than it was in July (before the storm).”
At the same time, Varano thought it was curious that Houston police blamed the crime on Katrina even though long before storm – beginning as early as 2003 – there was talk that urban police departments were seeing violent crime trend upwards.
So Varano began crunching the numbers. Importantly, he looked beyond simple year-over-year comparisons, since crime isn’t very dependent on the calendar. While police tend to discuss crime in terms of annual totals, Varano and his team conducted a type of analysis that’s designed to “cut through the noise” and look at crime patterns in a broader context.
They also examined violent crime rates in Phoenix and San Antonio, two other cities that received large numbers of evacuees (though not nearly as many as Houston).
Varano made two important findings.
First, he saw in Houston that there was, in fact, a statistically significant increase in certain violent crimes – homicides and robbery – in the aftermath of the storm. But other violent crimes, like aggravated assault and rape, didn’t tick up in the same way. The number of property crimes like burglary, auto theft and arson didn’t change significantly either.
Second, Varano found that San Antonio and Phoenix didn’t have the same types of crime trends as Houston post-Katrina, even though they also received evacuees. In Phoenix, only homicide numbers changed, but robbery figures didn’t. In San Antonio, crime levels were essentially unchanged.
The two discoveries seemed to undermine the premise of leaders who blamed Houston crime on Katrina evacuees.
If a bunch of violent New Orleans residents were taking over the streets of Houston, it would be unlikely they’d commit homicide but not other crimes.
And if evacuees were really driving a crime wave, then all three cities likely would have seen similar patterns, even if they weren’t at the same magnitude.
“The fact that we saw the trend in homicide is important and notable, but what our data show is a more tempered picture,” Varano said. “The idea that there was a crime epidemic – I believe that’s overrated.”
He added that if the conversation had focused on Houston’s homicide rate – the number of homicides that occur for every 100,000 residents – there’s a good chance it didn’t increase at all. After all, larger cities tend to have more crimes. And Houston became much larger overnight. But because it’s unclear exactly what Houston’s population was following Katrina, it’s impossible to know the true crime rate.
So why would public officials loudly proclaim a crime crisis even if the numbers don’t clearly show one existed?
Generally, communities try to blame their crime on outsiders, Varano said. In Houston, Katrina provided the perfect opportunity to do that. He’s not surprised the media glommed onto the story either. And there were race and class issues surrounding Katrina. Though Varano doesn’t believe Houston leaders were intentionally race baiting, demographic data collected at Houston shelters shows evacuees were overwhelmingly poor, black and undereducated. They made for an easy target.
Meanwhile, a 2011 study suggests the police may have hade another incentive to drum up publicity about a crime wave:
In the weeks before Katrina made landfall, the police department was publicly noting what they called ‘an unprecedented amount of police officer retirements’ and what the chief characterised as a lack of long-term planning by his predecessors. The possibility that the city government sought to capitalise on the influx of federal disaster relief aid that came to the city in the days and months following the hurricane cannot be discounted.
By emphasising the danger posed by the population increase, combined with the fact that fully one-third of (news media) references about police and law enforcement discussed resource shortage and allocation issues, the police set the stage for a moral panic to occur.
Ironically, Varano says, given the socioeconomics of the evacuees, the magnitude of the damage and the disorganization of the response, he would have expected a more dramatic uptick in crime.
“Let’s be frank,” Varano says. “Under the best case scenario, does anybody think you could displace this number of people with this prevalence of socioeconomic challenges into a completely distinct area. … and not have any negative outcomes? Really? Are we that naïve?”
While public officials and the media were in an uproar about a supposed Katrina crime wave, Varano says, they missed the real story: despite the odds, they managed to avoid one.