Houston-area streets are active with a growing number of gang members, with police saying there are almost 20,000 in the region, an increase of 29 percent since 2010.
The number of gangs identified by law enforcement in the area has also grown - 296, up from 260 in the same time period, according to recently released data.
Capt. Dale Brown, head of the Houston Police Department's gang division, acknowledged the increase in gang members, but said it mirrors a yearly average increase ranging from 10 percent to 20 percent.
"My main thing here is not to alarm the public. What happens is somebody throws a number out there . and then people react to that and say that's a terribly large number and our gang problem is out of control, and that just couldn't be further from the truth," Brown said. "Total confirmed gang crime in the city of Houston is still less than 5 percent of our total reported crime."
Brown said HPD is doing a better job of identifying gang incidents and documenting members, which would result in more reported gang activity.
The issue has prompted former Houston Police Chief C.O. Bradford, now a City Council member, to propose reducing the number of cadets by 10 in two of the department's 70-member academy classes each year.
The estimated savings of $1.6 million in trainee pay could be used to fund a coordinated after-school program that would thwart gang recruitment, Bradford suggested.
"You can see the alarm I'm trying to sound: going from 15,000 to 19,000 in just two and half years - that's huge," Bradford said, referring to the increase in gang members.
The HPD gang statistics were provided by Police Chief Charles McClelland after Bradford requested them, and he provided them to the Houston Chronicle.
No support for idea
Bradford said the city is "losing the battle" to provide effective after-school programs that would slow gang recruitment, adding that parents should be able to get neighborhood-specific information regarding various programs offered.
"We need to really, really do something different than we have been doing in the past, and I'm trying my best and haven't been able to successfully get someone in the city of Houston as a full-time youth coordinator," Bradford said.
However, Bradford's proposal has been nixed by McClelland, Mayor Annise Parker and by the police union.
Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers' Union, called Bradford's proposal to reduce the academy classes "crazy," noting that the HPD is barely keeping pace with attrition.
"I can't believe that anybody on City Council believes we have enough police officers on the streets," Hunt said. "For someone to propose that is absolutely ridiculous. I'm not opposed to after-school funding, but that has to come from other sources - it can't come from HPD cadets."
County, HPD not idle
Hunt said 40 percent of the current 5,300-member force is now eligible to retire. He said the academy classes barely keep up with the 120 to 150 officers who leave HPD each year.
Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos said her office is helping to establish a regional gang enforcement center to fight gang proliferation.
HPD has a youth mentoring program, a gang education unit that visits schools, and participates in the successful multi-agency StopHoustonGangs.org website, Brown noted.
Gangs younger, meaner
Lykos said Houston's economic prosperity, its proximity to Mexico and its role as a hub for global trade has made it a magnet for organized crime.
Local gangs are known to work with transnational criminal rings and are involved in crimes such as dog fighting, murder, human trafficking, home invasions, extortion, money laundering, kidnapping and drug trafficking, Lykos said.
"We have the most gangs in Texas, with 55 percent estimated to be multi-state or transnational," she said, referring to the Houston-Harris County area.
"Threat assessments note that local gang members are becoming younger and more violent, especially toward law enforcement, and that recruitment is at an all-time high," the district attorney said.