San Antonio – Before UTSA Criminologist Michael Smith got into explaining the plan he and his colleagues had designed for the City of San Antonio, he made sure to stress what it wasn’t.
“It is not anything — does not resemble in any way, any shape, any fashion, the events that we all saw, and were horrified by, in Memphis,” Smith told council members during a Wednesday briefing.
“This is a data-driven, evidence-based plan that brings together the best science available to us for how to reduce violent crime in urban areas in a modern, professional way,” he added.
The violent crime reduction plan Smith and other criminologists from UTSA presented to the city council has three stages, focusing on the short, medium, and long term. The initial stage, which Smith equated to a “tourniquet” for dealing with violent crime, is a focus on “hot spots.”
After six to 12 months, the next stage would focus on tackling the underlying issues that contribute to recurring problems. After another six to 12 months, the long-term strategy would be to focus on deterring “high-risk offenders,” preferably through providing an alternative to a violent life style.
Smith and the UTSA team say the vast majority of violent street crime is concentrated in a “relatively small number of places” and that research shows that about 5% of offenders account for the majority of violent crime.
The hot spot policing strategy boils down to breaking up the city into nearly 136,000, 100-meter wide grid squares; identifying the ones with most aggravated assaults, murders, and robberies; and sending in more police as a deterrent.
Smith said literature suggests the high-visibility approach brings an 8% to 10% reduction in violent crime in those areas, which is “almost exactly what we found in Dallas.”
“In a big city like this, and in Dallas, that equated at the end of the year to 1,000 fewer violent crime victims,” he said.
SAPD has been using a similar plan since early 2022, though McManus says there is more data analysis going into it now, and they’re performing that analysis more frequently. They’re currently focused on 28 hot spots.
The origins of the new plan, go back to at least March 2022. Chief William McManus had heard about a plan Smith and fellow UTSA professor, Rob Tillyer, had helped develop for Dallas and wanted something similar for San Antonio.
But its presentation to council members also comes less than a week after the release of body camera footage that showed Tyre Nichols being beaten by five Memphis Police officers. The officers were part of a special unit, SCORPION, that was designed to focus on repeat violent offenders.
McManus repeatedly emphasized that SAPD’s approach to tackling hot spots would be different. Instead of actively looking for criminals, a single SAPD officer sits in the area during peak crime hours with their emergency lights flashing.
“All we’re doing is sitting there being visible with the lights on,” he told reporters. “Once the 10 or 15 minutes is up, we go about our business. We go back to our regular assignment and whether it’s on patrol, whether it’s SAFFE, whether it’s street crimes, they go back to whatever it was they were doing. There is no proactivity in these hot spot areas. That’s the difference between what happened in Memphis and what happens here in this program.”
The plan did not sit easy with everyone.
District 5 Councilwoman Teri Castillo said she is concerned with “human collateral damage” of “hyper-concentrating” police in low-income communities of people of color.
“I’m pretty sure if we get the hexbins of where those hot spots are and overlap it with a redlining map, or a map with housing demolitions, or a map with childhood asthma, it’s going to be the same spots, right?” Castillo questioned.
Castillo grilled Smith on what the income levels were for the hot spots, but Smith said his team had not done an income analysis as part of their plan.
McManus told reporters the map of where the hot spots are would “probably not” be public.
“Because we don’t want to necessarily want people to avoid those. Now if they’re going to do something, we want them to do it where they usually do it because we’ll be there.”
SAPD plans to host three community meetings to share the plan’s specifics and implementation with residents:
Monday, Feb. 13, 6 p.m.-7:30 p.m.: San Antonio Food Bank, 5200 Old Highway 90 W.
Thursday, Feb. 16, 6 p.m.-7:30 p.m.: Second Baptist Church, 3310 E. Commerce
Monday, Feb. 20, 6 p.m.-7:30 p.m.: McCreless Library, 1023 Ada St.
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