Crime remains a top priority for likely voters in the lead-up to Election Day as candidates sharpen their messaging around public safety to appeal to those concerns. 

The city’s murder rate and violent crime overall is down from recent highs during the height of the pandemic, according to the Houston Police Department, but levels remain elevated compared to pre-pandemic times. 

Concerns over the issue continue to linger in the minds of residents, showing up in several recent mayoral polls, including one published Wednesday by the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs. 

By far, likely voters surveyed for the most recent poll said crime is the most important problem facing Houston. Of the 800 likely voters surveyed, 46 percent said crime was the most important issue in the mayor’s race.

The survey was conducted online from Sept. 30 and Oct. 6, and has a margin of error of plus- or minus-3.5 percent.. 

The next closest issue, economic inequality, was selected by only 11 percent of respondents, according to the survey.

Concern about crime was even more pronounced when respondents were asked to select their three most important issues. The top three were crime at 74 percent, with road conditions and rising property taxes well behind at 47 percent and 36 percent respectively.

“Public sentiment isn’t correlating with that data that’s trending downward,” said Renée Cross, senior executive director of the Hobby School, noting the nationwide tough-on-crime messaging directed by Republican politicians at urban centers like Houston. 

Ninety-two percent of Republicans in the survey said crime is one of the three most important problems, Cross said. However, 74 percent of Black Democrats and 73 percent of Latino Democrats said the same, compared to just 41 percent of white Democrats. 

The differences of opinion likely point to socioeconomic differences between the various groups, Cross said. 

“In a lot of cases, crime is happening in their neighborhoods, so they’re seeing it up close and personal,” she said. 

The prevalence of crime in the minds of voters makes it no surprise the issue has dominated the campaign trail. 

State Sen. John Whitmire, who has led in every major poll of the race so far, centers his campaign around public safety, including a controversial plan to invite Texas Department of Public Safety troopers to Houston to supplement the police force. 

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who narrowly trails Whitmire in those same polls, says improving public safety is one of her top three priorities. 

Other declared candidates include City Councilmember Robert Gallegos, former council members MJ Khan and Jack Christie, former METRO chairman Gilbert Garcia, and attorney Lee Kaplan, all of whom cite crime or public safety as key issues. 

The candidates have proposed a variety of policies aimed at lowering the city’s crime rate, including Whitmire’s call for DPS troopers, hiring 600 officers to fill out Houston Police Department staffing, hiring mental health professionals to respond to certain calls, and improving relations between the department and minority communities. 

All four proposals received majority support from the likely voters surveyed by the Hobby School, but Whitmire’s plan was easily the most controversial, according to the poll. 

Whitmire’s plan calls for 200 DPS troopers to be invited to Houston to help patrol the city. HPD has lost more than 300 officers from its workforce since a quarter-century ago, and response times have steadily increased over the last few years, according to the Houston Chronicle. 

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s direction of DPS has made it into a polarizing agency in recent years.

A similar partnership between DPS and Austin was announced last spring. It turned into a political football by the summer, however, when Austin officials suspended the city’s partnership with the state after an incident in which troopers pulled guns on a father in front of his 10-year-old son during a traffic stop. Abbott responded by promising to send more troopers to Austin.

Despite the controversy, 65 percent of those polled said they support Whitmire’s plan, but the Democrat’s proposal lacks approval from those that identify with his political party, according to the poll. 

Only 30 percent of Democrats polled said they strongly support the plan, compared to 42 percent of independents and 63 percent of Republicans. The city’s youngest voters were the least likely to support DPS coming to Houston, with only 29 percent of Gen Zers and Millennials saying they were in favor. 

The other crime-fighting proposals respondents were asked about — hiring 600 more officers, increasing funding for mental health professionals and improving HPD relations with minority communities — all saw more than 80 percent support, according to the poll. 

“I certainly wasn’t surprised that, among those four proposals, (Whitmire’s plan) had the least, but it still does have majority support which goes back to crime being the big issue,” Cross said.  

Along with concerns about crime, negative attitudes about city services in general have been prevalent on the campaign trail. 

Candidates promise to root out corruption, turn around an inefficient city government, fix failing infrastructure and improve unreliable garbage collection at nearly every forum and debate. 

The survey found a statistical tie between people who thought the city was going in the right direction and those who said the opposite. Most Democrats, 77 percent, said it is heading in the right direction compared to only 9 percent of Republicans. Sixty-six percent of independents said the city is headed in the wrong direction. 

While partisan identity had some sway over respondents’ attitudes, Cross said the percentage of people who think the city is heading in the wrong direction was surprisingly high for a Democratic-controlled city. 

Improving road conditions, the city economy, preventing flooding and increasing affordable housing were all listed as top concerns for those polled. Those issues regularly have appeared in previous citywide polls on voter concerns.  

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Paul Cobler covers politics for the Houston Landing. Paul returns to Texas after covering city hall for The Advocate in Baton Rouge. During two-and-a-half years at the newspaper, he spearheaded local accountability...