The San Antonio Police Department recorded 23% more homicides in 2021 — 160 — than in 2020, an increase Chief William McManus attributed to “random, spontaneous acts of violence,” rather than gang-related deaths or otherwise organized crime.

While the number of homicides last year also were 52% more than in 2019, violent crime overall — including homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault — decreased by 9%, according to the department’s preliminary 2021 Uniform Crime Report (UCR) that is subject to FBI verification. Property crimes increased by nearly 4.5% as crime of all types in the city increased by 2%.

McManus told City Council’s Public Safety Committee on Tuesday that the kind of “disorganized” crime he attributed to driving up the homicide figure is hard to control. “Last night, [we] had a shooting at a Martin Luther King celebration at Santa’s Place; there were … people shot because of some disagreement.”

Four people went to the hospital and two are in critical condition, according to media reports.

More than a third of homicides last year were the result of an argument, McManus said. After the 28% of homicides of which there was no confirmed factor, domestic violence accounted for 14%.

This pie chart shows that an argument was a factor in more than a third of homicides in San Antonio in 2021.
This pie chart shows that an argument was a factor in more than a third of homicides in San Antonio in 2021. Credit: Courtesy / San Antonio Police Department

Preliminary data indicates that approximately 80% of homicides last year were committed with a firearm, police Lt. Jesse Salame told the San Antonio Report. Knives came in second at about 10%.

However, McManus said he doesn’t think Texas’ new open-carry firearm law, which made it legal for most adults to carry a handgun in a holster without a permit both openly or concealed, contributed to the homicide increase.

“There are no more criminals carrying guns since that law was passed than there were before,” he said. “There’s a lot of people out there that shouldn’t be carrying guns or carrying them illegally. … That’s the driving force behind all this gun violence.”

Typically, homicide victims are also engaging in “high risk” activities such as drug use or prostitution, McManus said.

For law-abiding citizens going about their day, he said, “your chances of being the victim of a violent crime are very, very low. … With some exceptions — it’s the risky behavior that’s going to get you in trouble.”

Arrests for vehicle theft increased by nearly 25% to more than 8,700 in part because of a task force formed to focus on such thefts during the holiday season, McManus said.

He noted that many of the people they caught with stolen goods had long criminal histories.

“We’re seeing [that increased recidivism] across the state,” McManus said. “We’re seeing the results of criminal justice reform,” such as decreased costs for those arrested to get out of jail on bond and the use of personal recognizance bonds.

This has harmed the perception of punishment, he said. “From what I see on the street and from those that I’ve talked to on the street, there is clearly a lack of fear of consequence for committing a crime.”

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) noted that it’s up to Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales — not City Council — to make sure there are appropriate consequences.

“How are they getting back out on the streets with long … rap sheets?” Perry said. “I think we need to highlight that for our district attorney.”

Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6), who chairs the committee, asked McManus if he saw a way for City Council to help reduce crime with an ordinance.

“I would say no,” McManus replied. “A city ordinance is way, way down on the totem pole of effectiveness as far as stopping any of these types of of crime. I don’t know how you alter human behavior; when you’ve got somebody who’s so willing to pull a gun to settle an argument or to resolve their anger issues. That’s what’s frustrating to me.”

New reporting system to provide nuanced crime data

This will be the last year that San Antonio relies solely on UCR data as a more advanced statistical reporting system is in the process of coming online.

The UCR system allows only the most severe of seven offense categories in any given incident to be reported, meaning if a rape occurs during a murder, only the murder is reported. Crime is therefore inherently underreported.

The new National Incidents Based Reporting System (NIBRS) allows up to 10 offenses to be recorded out of a single incident and captures data on 49 different offenses, including white-collar crimes, in 23 categories.

More than half of the nation’s law enforcement agencies are participating in NIBRS. SAPD is one of them, having submitted its first report in November 2020.

Because of the increased detail of reporting, NIBRS reports likely will show what will appear to be an increase in incidents of crime — but that’s because they are capturing more data.

NIBRS also collects demographic information — including race, age and sex — about the assailant and the victim, the relationship between the two (if they’re family members, married, strangers, etc.), and where and when the crime took place.

The 2021 NIBRS report submitted by SAPD to the FBI is still under review. The federal agency’s online data explorer tool reflects only the 2020 data that has been verified so far.

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org