Two mayoral candidates and others in the community have pointed to San Antonio’s increased violent crime rate as evidence of a crisis, but local crime experts say the city is still one of the safest big cities in Texas and in the United States.

Last year, preliminary data from the San Antonio Police Department showed that violent crime occurrences in San Antonio increased by 9.2% between 2015 and 2016, causing concern throughout the community.

In recent mayoral forums and debates, both Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) and Bexar County Democratic Party Chairman Manuel Medina, who are two of 14 candidates running to unseat Mayor Ivy Taylor in the May 6 election, have cited local crime statistics to support their claims that rising crime in San Antonio has reached crisis levels.

At a mayoral forum hosted last month by the Alamo Community Group, Medina referred to the local crime situation as one “that we haven’t seen before” and asserted that local criminal activity today is at the same level as it was when the city was known as “the drive-by capital of the state” in the 1990s, one of the most violent times in San Antonio’s history.

“The truth is when you go out into the community and when you talk to the officers there, it hits you that it’s real,” Medina told the Rivard Report in a recent interview.

At the same forum, Nirenberg said the violent crime rate has “skyrocketed,” calling it “unacceptable, period.”

“If you ask the average San Antonian what’s on their mind with regard to how the city is going, crime is at the top of the list,” he told the Rivard Report.

When the topic comes up, Taylor recognizes that crime is a pervasive problem, but points to progress being made in enforcement strategies and police-community relations.

Taylor said the rhetoric from her opponents about San Antonio being in a crime crisis is “a political narrative right now that’s unfortunately convenient for some folks that are running for office.

“But for those of us that live on the Eastside, [crime] is something that we have dealt with and are dealing with,” she told the Rivard Report last week, “so I hope a lot of the positive progress continues.”

Mayoral Candidates, from left, Chairman Manuel Medina, Mayor Ivy Taylor, and Councilman Councilman Ron Nirenberg gather before the San Antonio Mayoral Debate on March 2.
(From left) Bexar County Democratic Party Chairman Manuel Medina, Mayor Ivy Taylor, and Councilman Ron Nirenberg wait to take the stage for a mayoral debate on March 2. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In the midst of the reports and public unease about safety, SAPD Chief William McManus launched the Violent Crime Task Force in January to use intelligence and analytics to target individuals throughout the city who engage in high-risk behavior, who he said are the usual perpetrators and victims of violent crimes. The Bexar County Sheriff’s office, along with the District Attorney’s office and other federal partners, have joined with SAPD to carry out the initiative.

A study released by New York University’s Brennan Center shows that San Antonio’s violent crime rate – which takes into account local population totals – increased by 23.5% to 634 offenses per 100,000 people.

The same document reports that the city wasn’t alone in its violent crime uptick – 12 of the country’s other biggest cities also saw a jump in their violent crime rates. Chicago spiked by 17%, Charlotte by 13%, and Austin by 10.7%. San Antonio saw the biggest increase of violent crime, but the report did not have data available for several cities including Phoenix, Memphis, Los Vegas, and other major cities.

SAPD can’t pinpoint exactly what might have caused the rise in violent crime, but McManus said that most of the crimes are drug- and gang-related and involve people who engage in other high-risk behavior.

“While we can’t point to one specific cause for the increase [in violent crime], we remain committed to fighting the increase in crime by engaging in intelligence-led policing and community engagement strategies,” McManus said. “Despite the increase, the city of San Antonio is still one of the safest big cities in America.”

Taylor lives with her family on the Eastside, an area that has historically high crime and poverty rates. She has seen the positive effects economic development and neighborhood rehabilitation has had on deterring crime in Dignowity Hill, she said last week at a breakfast hosted by San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside, where she gave an update on the Eastside’s growth and business development.

One of Taylor’s top priorities as mayor is connecting residents on all sides of town to opportunity, she said, which directly relates to reducing crime. Her broader efforts against crime include creating the Mayor’s Council on Police-Community Relations last September to improve policing in San Antonio, especially among communities of color, and bringing into the city My Brother’s Keeper, a national initiative that prepares at-risk boys of color for college or a career, reduces violence and recidivism, and bolsters workforce development.

Appointee's discuss their topic during breakout sessions.
Members of the police-community relations task force take on complex topics during breakout sessions at their December 2016 meeting. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Local expert Armando J. Abney, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at St. Mary’s University, said that due to crime’s cyclical nature, it’s premature to declare that San Antonio is experiencing a crisis after a single, one-year increase in crime statistics.

“We’re basing it off 2015 data and comparing it to 2016 and see there is an increase, but that’s just one little piece of data. We’ve got to wait five or six years down the road, and if that continues then we see if we have a trend,” Abney said.

“It’s too early to try and pinpoint what’s going on.”

Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, who assumed office in January, also noted  that crime “goes up and it goes down.

“This year we happen to be at a high level, next year may be a low level,” he told the Rivard Report. “What we like to keep stressing is that many of the violent crimes we’re seeing are not strangers walking up to another stranger at a gas station and shooting them, it’s a lot of gang-related type stuff going on. People in a high risk lifestyle are many times the victims and the perpetrators here.”

Putting San Antonio’s Crime Rates Into Perspective

By population, San Antonio is the second-largest Texas city, behind Houston and ahead of Dallas, Austin, and Fort Worth. When it comes to violent crime rates, San Antonio ranked third in the state over 2015, behind Houston and Dallas, according to the NYU Brennan Center study. Most of those offenses, Abney said, are concentrated on the city’s Eastside and Southside.

Amid San Antonio’s general rise in violent crime in 2016, getting the most attention was a significant increase in the number of homicides to 151, a 60% increase over 2015 and the highest number of murders since 1995.

While 60% seems like a large jump, Abney said, San Antonio’s homicide numbers are still relatively low for its size and pale compared to those of Houston and Dallas, which had 302 and more than 160, respectively. The NYU Brennan Center study concluded that “an increase in the murder rate is occurring in some cities even while other forms of crime remain relatively low. Concerns about a national crime wave are still premature, but these trends suggest a need to understand how and why murder is increasing in some cities.”

Between 2014 and 2015, homicides in San Antonio decreased by 8%.

Despite what the numbers show, homicides in recent years have shaken the San Antonio community. The controversial shootings of two local black men – Marquise Jones, 23, in 2014 and Antronie Scott, 36, in 2016 – by SAPD officers and a number of similar occurrences across the country sparked protests and calls for national police reform, straining the relations between law enforcement and the local community.

Last November, San Antonio Police Detective Benjamin Marconi, 50, was shot and killed while writing a ticket for an unrelated traffic stop outside the Public Safety headquarters. The incident sent shockwaves through the city. Marconi’s killer, Otis McKane, who was peacefully arrested following a 30-hour manhunt, told reporters he “lashed out at somebody who didn’t deserve it.”

Marconi’s case, and other similar occurrences where innocent people were killed in San Antonio, “are some tragic exceptions,” said San Antonio Police Department spokesperson Sgt. Jesse Salame. “By and large, thankfully, those are the exception – not the rule.”

The family of Marquise Jones are asked to stand during a speech by family member Debbie Bush. Photo by Scott Ball.
The family of Marquise Jones are asked to stand at a town hall on the topic of Eastside violence. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

San Antonio has always had a historically low homicide rate compared to other [similar] cities,” Salame added, “so even with the rise [in violent crime] last year, which we can’t attribute to one particular factor, we’ve taken our own proactive measures here to try and combat that going into this year.”

According to SAPD preliminary data, Salame said that this year the department has noticed a jump in robberies, spontaneous outbreaks of violence, and domestic violence cases, though they’re unable to determine the causes of each of those increases. SAPD’s Violent Crime Task Force, Salame, said, is in some ways a method SAPD can use to determine the effects of taking individuals who organize and perpetuate crime – whether it involves drugs, prostitution, or gang-related activity – off San Antonio streets.

“We have a small group of people that are responsible for a lot of the crime in our community,” he said.

Abney said he believes community-wide issues such as crime tend to get sensationalized during election years, especially when there’s reason for the general public to believe that times are harder than before. Last year’s rising crime statistics provide the perfect platform for such activity.

“Fear is a great motivator for people, to get the people out and stir them up and get them to vote,” Abney said.

Despite their varied perspectives about whether last year’s violent crime uptick signals a fault in leadership or can be attributed to the natural ebb and flow of crime trends, Taylor, Nirenberg, and Medina all agree that addressing certain social issues such as poverty and access to opportunity in San Antonio will in turn decrease local crime levels.

There are still those who experience crime on a regular basis, some of which have dealt with the issue all of their lives. Taylor said she wants those people to know that “we haven’t given up on our goal to reduce crime and we’ll continue working.”

Camille Garcia

Camille Garcia is a journalist born and raised in San Antonio. She formerly worked at the San Antonio Report as assistant editor and reporter. Her email is camillenicgarcia@gmail.com