Sheriff: Violent crime down by 15 percent in Hidalgo County

EDINBURG — Violent crime in the county declined 15 percent in 2018 from the previous year, according to data Hidalgo County Sheriff J.E. “Eddie” Guerra presented to county commissioners Tuesday.

The Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office reported 523 violent crimes, which consist of murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault in 2018, a decrease of 94 from 2017.

“… I’m proud to say that today the citizens of Hidalgo County are experiencing some of the lowest crime rates that we’ve ever had in over 25 years,” Guerra said during commissioners court, noting the sheriff’s office first began collecting crime data in 1994.

From 2009 to 2018, the number of reported violent crimes dropped by half, the sheriff said, which is notable given that Hidalgo County’s population has been on the rise.

DOMESTIC VIOLENCE DEATHS

Arguably the most significant drop in 2018’s violent crime data was in the number of murders: Sheriff’s investigators worked just four murders last year, compared to 23 in 2017.

Two of 2018’s three cases were related to domestic violence.

In October, HCSO issued an arrest warrant for Mario Lozano Lemus for the double murder of his mother-in-law and sister-in-law, who were fatally shot in Alton. That same month, HCSO arrested Joseph Robert Nocar for the alleged murder of his father in Weslaco.

Then in November, brothers Isaac Garza Becerra and Jose Angel Becerra were arrested on capital murder charges for allegedly fatally shooting a man outside a Weslaco convenience store during a drug deal gone wrong.

Despite the drop, the sheriff said last year’s cases reflect a disturbing trend: the high percentage of murders categorized as incidents of domestic violence.

Ten of 2017’s 23 murder cases stemmed from domestic violence and seven of 10 in 2016 were related to domestic violence.

“We’re going to continue to work on domestic violence,” Guerra told The Monitor. “We’re in the process of hiring experienced deputies to go out and do follow-ups on our domestic violence calls to hopefully lower incidents of aggravated assaults and murders.”

HCSO applied for and received a grant last year through the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women that will afford the hiring of four deputies and one crime victims liaison. They will work to connect victims of domestic violence with resources and services.

PROPERTY CRIME

Like violent crime, property crime also decreased last year.

These crimes, which consist of burglary, theft and auto theft, amounted to 3,489 in 2018, over an 8 percent drop from the previous year.

Guerra attributes the drop in these crimes to HCSO’s focus on cracking down on the sale of street-level narcotics.

“We do two to three search warrants a week throughout the county, strictly targeting street-level narcotics dealers because we want to disrupt them so those people that are hooked on substances won’t get to that product,” Guerra told The Monitor, noting many people who abuse drugs commit theft as a means of financing their addiction.

In 2018, HCSO cleared, or solved, 513 drug cases by arrest.

The sheriff added that deputies caught more burglars in progress in 2018 than ever before, which he attributed to officers patrolling areas where known dealers operate.

Last year marked the last time HCSO collected crime statistics using the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program’s Summary Reporting System, which only counts eight crimes. This year it switched to the FBI’s National Incident-Based Reporting System, or NIBRS, which collects data on more than 50 crimes.

The FBI requires law enforcement agencies to make the switch to NIBRS by January 2021, and the state of Texas is asking agencies to do so by September 2019.

Guerra told commissioners the switch will give HCSO “a much better picture of the crime rate in our county.”

RESPONSE TIMES

One data point that did not decrease in 2018 was the average amount of time its takes deputies to respond to a call.

In 2018, the average response time was 16 minutes and 39 seconds compared to 12 minutes and 47 seconds in 2017.

This is partly due to the number of dispatch service calls growing by approximately 6,700 while staffing levels remain largely the same.

“We’re going to address that and it’s definitely something that we’re going to try to improve on,” Guerra told commissioners about 2018’s increased response times.

He told The Monitor his division chiefs were working with the office’s crime analysts to re-assign deputies where crimes are more frequent and re-assign shifts based on the time of day calls are received.

JAIL BARRACKS

This year’s presentation of crime rates included information on the cost of housing Hidalgo County inmates in neighboring county facilities, a number that amounted to $2.7 million in 2018. On average, about 139 inmates were held in out-of-county jails last year.

While that represented a $1.1 million decrease from the costs spent on out-of-county inmates in 2017, Guerra said he is limited in how much more he can decrease that expense due to the fact the Hidalgo County Adult Detention Center lacks sufficient bed space to keep up with the county’s inmate population.

County commissioners have selected a project manager and architect to oversee the construction of barracks behind the detention center, Guerra told The Monitor, adding that the project manager determined that there is space for seven barracks. The barracks would each hold 48 inmates, for an additional 336 beds.

There is no timeframe for when construction of the barracks will begin.

“We can only move at the speed of county government,” Guerra told The Monitor.