As a new migrant in Houston, Jose Amundarain felt unsafe when he moved to the Greater Greenspoint neighborhood, where he often heard gunshots near his home. 

Amundarain said he wished police would take more action to stop drug crime, or could have prevented a shooting from happening near a bus stop where kids were waiting to go to school. 

The response he’d like to see from the next mayor of the fourth-largest city in the country? “A heavy hand” with drug dealers.

Crime has emerged as Houstonians’ top priority for the next mayor just two months out from Election Day, according to a new survey released Tuesday by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University. 

The survey was conducted between April and June in partnership with the Houston Landing and was made possible with financial support from the Houston Endowment

The survey was issued in multiple languages and regardless of voter status, with the aim of capturing the considerations of every resident who could be impacted by Houston’s strong-mayor governance. Amundarain was one of the survey participants who responded in Spanish.


TUESDAY: The Houston Landing in partnership with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research launches a series of stories examining priorities of residents for the next mayor.

TODAY: Crime — 81 percent of Houston residents said it was very important for the next mayor to reduce crime.

THURSDAY: Economy — Almost 40 percent of Houstonians worried about paying for housing.

FRIDAY: Infrastructure — The majority of residents want the city to improve drainage, roads and water supply.

MONDAY: Environment — More than 70 percent of Houstonians worry about climate change and extreme weather.

Crime consistently rose to top priority across geographic, age, and racial and ethnic lines. 

The survey, which asked the more than 2,000 respondents their priorities on a number of issues facing Houston, found a whopping eight in 10 Houstonians thought it was “very important” that the next mayor take action on crime. 

This, despite Houston Police Department numbers showing that crime this year — on the whole — is trending down compared to the first six months of 2022. 

Respondents also said, on average, the city was only as safe, or slightly less safe than their own neighborhoods. Only 35 percent reported feeling the rest of the city was less safe than their own neighborhood, and 1 in 10 said the rest of the city was safer than their home. 

Residents of the Northshore, Settegast and East Little York neighborhoods, as well as the Humble and Kingwood area, had the lowest percentages who perceived their neighborhood as a generally safe place. 

Overall, 58 percent of respondents said they felt less safe walking in their neighborhood at night than during the day — something researchers noted may be a “key source” of unease and concern about crime. 

HPD’s data shows a more optimistic picture of crime in Houston. As of July 31, violent crime was down 8.5 percent compared to the first six months of last year, and non-violent crime was down 2.1 percent. Murder was down more than 22 percent. 

How Houstonians want the next mayor to tackle both the realities and perceptions of crime is less clear. Nearly half of residents “strongly agreed '' that the new mayor should deploy both “tough-on-crime” and community-policing policies to tackle crime in the city, catching researchers off-guard. 

“It's a little surprising to see the embracing of tough-on-crime approaches,” said Hanna Love, a senior researcher at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institute, adding that generations of tough-on-crime approaches have not solved the nation’s safety challenges. 

“There's good data coming out of major cities that show that you can take a more community-based policing approach and reduce crime,” she said.

In the last decade, concerns of crime and safety largely faded as the top priority for residents of the Bayou City. According to previous Kinder Houston Area Surveys, up until 2023, the economy, traffic and environment beat out crime for top spots. 

Love, who studies perceptions of crime and safety in major U.S. cities at the Brookings Institute, said crime often becomes a leading issue in election years, driven at times by politicians as well as media coverage of violence. 

In the lead up to the 2022 midterm elections, a Gallup poll showed that Americans were “more likely now than at any time over the past five decades to say there is more crime in their local area than there was a year ago,” and that a record 56 percent of respondents perceived local crime as increasing.

“Research over the decades has shown that, actually, if you create stronger penalties for minor crimes, you actually see increases in violent crime … ” Love said. “But I just don't think people are aware of it. And oftentimes, you know, crime and safety is such a, you know, time tested election strategy — being tough on crime is a way to win elections.” 

So far, most candidates for mayor in Houston have listed crime as a key issue in their campaigns, but state Sen. John Whitmire in particular has seemed to lean into the tough-on-crime approach, pledging to call in state troopers to bolster local police in combating violent crime. While he acknowledged Houston’s violent crime has been ticking downward, he said the numbers still were higher than pre-pandemic lows.

Love said politicians can tackle crime by finding where and how specific crimes are occurring within the city. Sometimes, certain crimes spike in specific areas, even if overall crime is falling. That way, she said, leaders can tackle both perception and actual crime accordingly. 

Fred Woods presides during a Northwood Manor Civic Club meeting in Houston.
Fred Woods presides during a Northwood Manor Civic Club meeting in north Houston. His neighborhood was among many in Houston that cited reducing crime as a priority for the city's next mayor. (Annie Mulligan for Houston Landing)

Fred Woods, president of the Northwood Manor Civic Club, said he wishes the city would create a more transparent way of sharing hyper-local crime trends to fact-check his and others' perceptions of crime, perhaps at local meetings with police or through the use of an online dashboard.

Woods said his neighborhood recently has been pushing to improve a once “strained relationship” between law enforcement and residents. His area of East Little York was among the survey respondents that showed a particularly low perception of safety in general and at night.

Efrain Cortes, a Colombia native, who said he will be voting in his first mayoral election from his neighborhood of Sycamore Bend, agreed: “Interaction between the police and the citizenry is vital.”

Cortes, who also responded to the survey and has lived in Houston for more than 20 years, explained that officers should avail themselves to local residents and listen. In his neighborhood, collective neighborhood action to ask for help for things, such as street lights, has been effective, he said. 

Woods said he did not view tough-on-crime and community-based policing as diametrically opposed when trying to battle crime in his neighborhood. 

His neighborhood also was among those in which 61 percent of respondents — the city’s highest — wanted the next mayor to take the dual approach.

“They can go hand in hand, they don't have to compete,” he said. 

While the survey did not define the terms, Woods’ definitions of tough-on-crime and community based policing are simple: “If you commit a crime, especially a violent crime, you will get your due process, you will be caught, and you will have to answer to that.” Community-based policing, he said, means that officers live in the communities where they work or make an effort to become a part of it. 

“It's a lot harder for an officer to abuse his power and privileges with people that he knows he's going to see at the local grocery store, or post office, or you know, the church on Sunday,” he said.

Daniel Potter, senior director of research at the Kinder Institute, said there are very real challenges with violence in Houston, regardless of whether violence is higher relative to other decades like the 1990s.

 “How do we make sure that as a community, and as an area and as a city, we are understanding the reality of that challenge, we are allocating the resources to address both the immediacy of the challenge and the root cause going into that challenge?” Potter said. “If you want to address challenges around violence, address challenges of neighborhoods and communities that lack jobs, that lack viable, vertical ladders upward.”

Love said public health and infrastructure-based approaches to crime and neighborhood improvements have been shown to impact safety.

As if to underscore that point, according to the survey, communities that felt less safe at night also were dissatisfied with public amenities, such as streetlights and sidewalks. 

A recent Houston Landing story highlighted one Third Ward neighborhood whose residents decided they had to tackle their top public safety priority of better street lighting largely on their own.

Woods said his neighborhood has long suffered from neglect, adding he would never suggest his family or neighbors walk on their sidewalk-less streets at night.

“You have to acknowledge where we are as a city,” he said. “And that not all of the city has similar benefits or is even headed in similar directions … I really wish [the mayor] would adopt the ‘worst first’ when it comes to infrastructure, when it comes to policing.”

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Eileen Grench covers public safety for the Houston Landing, where two of her primary areas of focus will be the Houston Police Department and Harris County Sheriff’s Office. She is returning to local...