SAN ANTONIO – San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said the early stages of a plan to tackle violent crime in the city look promising.
The number of violent street crimes such as murder, robbery, non-family aggravated assault, and deadly conduct with a victim fell citywide in the first four months of 2023, but some of the worst areas for those crimes saw even bigger drops.
In a presentation to the city council on Wednesday, criminologists from the University of Texas at San Antonio showed there had been a 10.9% citywide drop in the average monthly number of those crimes during the first two months of the year compared to the same time frame in 2022. In March and April, the city saw a 9.5% drop.
However, within the “hot spots” for those crimes that SAPD targeted, there were 25% and 41.9% drops, respectively, during the same time frames.
“I am cautiously optimistic. However, we’ve only just begun, and there is no finish line to this,” McManus told reporters Wednesday, ahead of the presentation.
SAPD teamed up with the UTSA researchers to create a new violent crime reduction plan after McManus learned about their efforts in Dallas.
The UTSA team’s three-part plan starts with deterring crimes in the hot spots, then tackling underlying issues that lead to high crime in certain areas, and finally, deterring “high-risk offenders,” preferably by providing an alternative to a violent lifestyle.
SAPD officially began the hot spot policing phase in January. So far, the department has completed two 60-day cycles and is in the middle of a third.
The department targeted 28 hot spots in January and February, then 26 in March and April. Some locations were targeted during both cycles.
The hot spot strategy boils down to dividing the city into 100-meter-wide grid squares, identifying which of those grid areas have the most violent street crimes, and then having officers sit in the area during peak crime hours with their emergency lights flashing as a highly-visible deterrent to crime. The goal was to have officers do this for 15-minute spurts.
The director of UTSA’s Criminology and Criminal Justice Department, Professor Michael Smith, agreed with McManus’s cautious optimism but avoided drawing any conclusions.
“There is some more sophisticated analysis that we do when we, when we have a year’s worth of data to work with that more directly addresses the cause and effect question. But we’re not there yet,” Smith said.
NOT ALL SATISFIED
There was a tense moment in the meeting between Smith and District 5 Councilwoman Teri Castillo, who has been skeptical of the hot spot policing strategy.
The West Side councilwoman questioned Smith about whether there was a correlation between officers spending more time at the hot spots and crime increases within particular substation service areas. Referring to Smith’s complete study, which was not immediately made available to the media, Castillo said the Prue and North substations had longer times spent on average at hot spots and also saw increases in crime.
Smith said that was not the purpose of tracking the time spent at the spots. Instead, it was to see how closely SAPD was complying with the “treatment” schedule.
He also told Castillo he “could show you another set of data in the next period that may show you the exact same, exact opposite pattern.”
Their back-and-forth ended with Smith firmly denying any correlation and telling the councilwoman, “You’re wrong,” as her speaking turn ended.
CASTILLO: My understanding of hot spot policing is that it would reduce crime. But the data so far -- I understand being cautiously optimistic...
SMITH: It doesn’t increase crime, ma’am.
CASTILLO: The longer the officer’s at the hot spot, the substation saw an increase...
SMITH: That’s an incorrect way to read that graph.
CASTILLO: It’s page 13 of your study. Thank you.
SMITH: No, I’m sorry. You’re wrong.
Later on in the meeting, Castillo said she was dissatisfied with the presentation and analysis of the data and said she knew “a couple of grad students at UTSA that could adequately present and analyze this data to city council.”
When asked about the “tense moment” with Castillo after the meeting, Smith said he had no comment.