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In Austin, Less Than 10 Percent of Property Crimes Get Solved

Joy Diaz/KUT News
Theives broke into the reporter's home through a glass door in October.

If you live in Austin, chances are you or someone you know has been the victim of a property crime. 

That’s because Austin is one of the worst cities nationwide when it comes to property crime.

FBI numbers show Austin’s property crime rates are worse than New York, Chicago or even Los Angeles. Property crimes are so prevalent that a couple of years ago, the Austin Police Department created its very first Burglary Unit.

Every month almost 4,000property crimes happen in Austin.

Jennifer Isenberg was the victim of a property crime two years ago. She remembers coming home from work, entering through her back door, as she normally did “and I was like ‘hum, something’s weird.” She also remembers her dogs were acting funny. She couldn’t put her finger to it, but noticed the pugs, “Salt” and “Pepper,” kept looking at her.

“And I just turn my head to the right where my TV is – and it was gone!” Isenberg says.

When police arrived, they offered to bring a forensics team in to get some fingerprints. But Isenberg knew her chances of getting that TV back were slim to none.

Full disclosure: My own house was broken into in October. When police responded, they did collect evidence. The scene looked like it was straight from a CSI episode.

You might think APD will send the prints to the lab and find whoever stole the property. But Sergeant Robert Hester from APD's Burglary Unit says that’s not the case.

“We are lucky to get fingerprint comparisons within six months," says Hester. "It is not uncommon for the request to take two years.”

By then, the stolen property could be anywhere in the world. That’s probably why APD is only able to solve eight percent of its property crime cases. That rate has improved, somewhat. Two years ago, the clearance rate was five percent. The national average is 12 percent.

Sergeant Hester has heard the criticism; at any other job having a success rate of just eight percent would probably call for major restructuring. But at his job, there are many challenges before any restructuring can take place. He says his department’s urgent need is for “more money and more personnel.”

But Hester doesn’t have the authority to give his department either one of those things. Not even the police chief can do that.

The Austin City Council, on the advice of several sources, sets APD’s budget. One of those sources is Kansas-based market research firm ETC. Every year for the last decade or so, ETC has surveyed Austinites on what the city is doing right and where it needs to improve.

Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole was stunned to hear Austinites want the city to spend more on “police and on neighborhood policing.” After the report she said she “would want to emphasize that in [next year’s] budget.”

But those things were not emphasized in the current budget cycle. Perhaps, in part, because ETC’s Chris Tatham advised the council to spend more in places where the city would get more bang for its buck.

“People might want [the City Council] to invest more, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to make them more satisfied. Where you are going to get your biggest return off your investments is in areas where the satisfaction level is lower and the importance is relatively high.”

Just like ETC, Texas State University criminal justice Professor Kim Rossmo, also advises the Austin City Council. 

“You don’t want to spend a lot of money and see very minor improvements,” he says.

As the chair of the Austin’s Public Safety Commission, Rossmo urged the City of Austin two years ago to create the Burglary Unit. But he says more needs to be done. More money would be good. But it’s not the only solution. “Potential victims just have to be smart in terms of living in an urban area. The police have to be responsible beyond just taking a report and filing it. Our neighborhood associations have to play a role.”

Rossmo’s long-term goal is for Austin to get a clearance rate like that of the UK. There 23 percent of property crimes are solved. “If you want to be the best, you should look around the world and just take the best ideas and use them here,” says Rossmo.

While the city council decides which ideas to adopt, burglary victims will just have to sit back and wait to see if they are among the few whose cases get solved.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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