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Is crime up or down? In Houston, concerns are hard to allay

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Is crime up or down? In Houston, concerns are hard to allay

HOUSTON (AP) — Political ads on the airwaves and social media in the nation’s fourth largest city paint a picture of Houston as a failed state where crime is out of control and violent criminals have free rein.

The political discussion over crime even made its way to the pulpit, with popular megachurch Pastor Ed Young calling Houston “the most dangerous city in America” and telling parishioners that if the city, which is led by Democrats, “is to survive, we had better throw those bums out of office.”

In reality, September statistics showed a 3% drop in homicides and a 10% drop in overall violent crime compared with the same month last year, as Houston Police Chief Troy Finner pointed out at a town hall last month, trying to reassure residents that things are getting better.

But Finner, acknowledging concerns raised at the meeting, noted that crime is still “not where we want it to be.”

The debate in the Houston area mirrors similar discussions around the country on public safety as violent crime rates appear to have stabilized somewhat but still sit above pre-pandemic levels. The topic has become an attack line ahead of the midterm elections, largely by Republican candidates labeling Democrats as soft on crime.

In Harris County, Houston’s reliably Democratic home, the top elected official, Democrat Lina Hidalgo, finds herself in a tough reelection bid as her Republican opponent and some in law enforcement blame her policies for crime rates and state GOP officials accuse her of “defunding” the police.

Criminal justice experts say understanding recent crime trends remains challenging, politicization should be avoided, and solutions aren’t simple.

“You can’t hire enough officers to stop the problem that you have in a city. You have to take a holistic approach. You have to get the community involved,” said Howard Henderson, founder of the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University in Houston.

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Other cities having similar discussions include New Orleans, where officials and civic groups are debating how to combat a surge in violent crime, and Portland, Oregon, which has struggled to respond to street violence.

In Houston, as elsewhere, the debate has become politicized and sometimes frenzied.

At a Texas legislative committee meeting in Austin this month, Kevin Lawrence, executive director of Texas Municipal Police Association, suggested — without offering evidence — that many Harris County misdemeanor defendants were part of major syndicates seeking to commit more crime.

Ray Hunt, of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, warned at a recent meeting in Houston among officials in Harris County that if more deputies and prosecutors aren’t approved, “this county is going to be done.”

The warning came as crime in Houston appears to be trending downward after more than two years of sharp increases during the pandemic and inflationary pressures.

From 2019 to 2021, homicides in the county increased 59%, with most cases in Houston, according to state data. However, other crimes — burglary, robbery and larceny — were down the past two years.

“Pretty much everywhere has seen an increase in murder since 2019,” said Jeff Asher, a crime analyst.

Complicating things has been a county court system overwhelmed by a criminal case backlog that began after Houston was hit in 2017 by Hurricane Harvey and was exacerbated by the pandemic.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has touted a holistic approach to crime reduction through the One Safe Houston initiative. The $53 million program has provided money for police overtime, mental health services, domestic violence response and gun buybacks.

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In August, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar accused Harris County officials of violating a state law that prevents the “defunding” of police — a phrase that refers to reallocating some police funds to other priorities that underlie crime, such as mental wellness and unemployment, but that is sometimes misrepresented as abolishing police.

Hegar accused the county of not letting constables roll over unspent funds.

The law — which was passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature and applies to Texas’ most populous counties, most of which are led by Democrats — requires officials to hold an election if a budget reduces or reallocates law enforcement funding.

“We need more funding. … We need boots on the ground,” Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said this month.

Brittany Cheek, 29, said she was grateful county officials last month cleared a plot in her neighborhood of trash and an abandoned mobile home that had become a drug haven. But she’s still concerned about crime.

Residents’ worries shouldn’t be dismissed, Henderson said, but the media and politicians should do a better job of giving the public a correct picture of what’s affecting public safety.

Harris County’s bail reform efforts, part of a lawsuit settlement ensuring most misdemeanor defendants don’t remain jailed because they are poor, have also been blamed for crime increases.

Brandon Garrett, a law professor at Duke University and one of the monitors of a consent decree that settled the lawsuit, defended Harris County’s bail efforts, saying, “You can both protect people’s rights and accomplish public safety at the same time. It’s not a tradeoff.”

Hidalgo said the latest county budget is proposing $100 million in new law enforcement funding. But that budget’s approval is on hold, in part to calls by two Republican commissioners for more officers.

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Southeast Houston resident Leroy West, 67, said he’s against slashing police budgets in a way that would endanger public safety.

“I am a proponent of taking some of those funds and addressing social issues, mental health issues. If we deal with it on the front end, police don’t have to get involved on the back end,” West said as he attended a crime prevention workshop last month.

At the town hall with Finner, residents seemed receptive to his reassurances but were still worried.

East Houston resident Lisa Moore told Finner she’s “now taking a pill for anxiety so I can try to sleep at night” after recent shootings near her home.

Finner hugged Moore and promised her and others that their concerns wouldn’t be ignored.

“We got to get you some sleep and some peace,” Finner said.

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Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter: https://twitter.com/juanlozano70

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Israel hails ‘success’ after blocking unprecedented attack from Iran

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Israel hails ‘success’ after blocking unprecedented attack from Iran

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli leaders on Sunday credited an international military coalition with helping thwart a direct Iranian attack involving hundreds of drones and missiles, calling the coordinated response a starting point for a “strategic alliance” of regional opposition to Tehran.

But Israel’s War Cabinet met without making a decision on next steps, an official said, as a nervous world waited for any sign of further escalation of the former shadow war.

The military coalition, led by the United States, Britain and France and appearing to include a number of Middle Eastern countries, gave Israel support at a time when it finds itself isolated over its war against Hamas in Gaza. The coalition also could serve as a model for regional relations when that war ends.

“This was the first time that such a coalition worked together against the threat of Iran and its proxies in the Middle East,” said the Israeli military spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari.

One unknown is which of Israel’s neighbors participated in the shooting down of the vast majority of about 350 drones and missiles Iran launched. Israeli military officials and a key War Cabinet member noted additional “partners” without naming them. When pressed, White House national security spokesman John Kirby would not name them either.

But one appeared to be Jordan, which described its action as self-defense.

“There was an assessment that there was a real danger of Iranian marches and missiles falling on Jordan, and the armed forces dealt with this danger. And if this danger came from Israel, Jordan would take the same action,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi said in an interview on Al-Mamlaka state television. U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Sunday.

The U.S. has long tried to forge a regionwide alliance against Iran as a way of integrating Israel and boosting ties with the Arab world. The effort has included the 2020 Abraham Accords, which established diplomatic relations between Israel and four Arab countries, and having Israel in the U.S. military’s Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East and works closely with the armies of moderate Arab states.

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The U.S. had been working to establish full relations between Israel and regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack sparked Israel’s war in Gaza. The war, which has claimed over 33,700 Palestinian lives, has frozen those efforts due to widespread outrage across the Arab world. But it appears that some behind-the-scenes cooperation has continued, and the White House has held out hopes of forging Israel-Saudi ties as part of a postwar plan.

Just ahead of Iran’s attack, the commander of CENTCOM, Gen. Erik Kurilla, visited Israel to map out a strategy.

Israel’s military chief, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, on Sunday thanked CENTCOM for the joint defensive effort. Both Jordan and Saudi Arabia are under the CENTCOM umbrella. While neither acknowledged involvement in intercepting Iran’s launches, the Israeli military released a map showing missiles traveling through the airspace of both nations.

“Arab countries came to the aid of Israel in stopping the attack because they understand that regional organizing is required against Iran, otherwise they will be next in line,” Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israel’s military intelligence, wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said he had spoken with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and that the cooperation “highlighted the opportunity to establish an international coalition and strategic alliance to counter the threat posed by Iran.”

The White House signaled that it hopes to build on the partnerships and urged Israel to think twice before striking Iran. U.S. officials said Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Washington would not participate in any offensive action against Iran.

Israel’s War Cabinet met late Sunday to discuss a possible response, but an Israeli official familiar with the talks said no decisions had been made. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing confidential deliberations.

Asked about plans for retaliation, Hagari declined to comment directly. “We are at high readiness in all fronts,” he said.

“We will build a regional coalition and collect the price from Iran, in the way and at the time that suits us,” said a key War Cabinet member, Benny Gantz.

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Iran launched the attack in response to a strike widely blamed on Israel that hit an Iranian consular building in Syria this month and killed two Iranian generals.

By Sunday morning, Iran said the attack was over, and Israel reopened its airspace. Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, claimed Iran had taught Israel a lesson and warned that “any new adventures against the interests of the Iranian nation would be met with a heavier and regretful response from the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

The foes have been engaged in a shadow war for years, but Sunday’s assault was the first time Iran launched a direct military assault on Israel, despite decades of enmity dating back to the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Iran said it targeted Israeli facilities involved in the Damascus strike, and that it told the White House early Sunday that the operation would be “minimalistic.”

But U.S. officials said Iran’s intent was to “destroy and cause casualties” and that if successful, the strikes would have caused an “uncontrollable” escalation. At one point, at least 100 ballistic missiles were in the air with just minutes of flight time to Israel, the officials said.

Israel said more than 99% of what Iran fired was intercepted, with just a few missiles getting through. An Israeli airbase sustained minor damage.

Israel has over the years established — often with the help of the U.S. — a multilayered air-defense network that includes systems capable of intercepting a variety of threats, including long-range missiles, cruise missiles, drones and short-range rockets.

That system, along with collaboration with the U.S. and others, helped thwart what could have been a far more devastating assault at a time when Israel is already deeply engaged in Gaza as well as low-level fighting on its northern border with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia. Both Hamas and Hezbollah are backed by Iran.

While thwarting the Iranian onslaught could help restore Israel’s image after the Hamas attack in October, what the Middle East’s best-equipped army does next will be closely watched in the region and in Western capitals — especially as Israel seeks to develop the coalition it praised Sunday.

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In Washington, Biden pledged to convene allies to develop a unified response. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. would hold talks with allies. After an urgent meeting, the Group of Seven countries unanimously condemned Iran’s attack and said they stood ready to take “further measures.”

Israel and Iran have been on a collision course throughout Israel’s war in Gaza. In the Oct. 7 attack, militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, also backed by Iran, killed 1,200 people in Israel and kidnapped 250 others. Israel’s offensive in Gaza has killed over 33,000 people, according to local health officials.

Hamas welcomed Iran’s attack, saying it was “a natural right and a deserved response” to the strike in Syria. It urged the Iran-backed groups in the region to continue to support Hamas in the war.

Hezbollah also welcomed the attack. Almost immediately after the war in Gaza erupted, Hezbollah began attacking Israel’s northern border. The two sides have been involved in daily exchanges of fire, while Iranian-backed groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have launched rockets and missiles toward Israel.

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Federman reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Zeke Miller and Michelle L. Price in Washington; Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran; Samy Magdy in Cairo; Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan; and Giada Zampano in Rome contributed to this report.

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How to get rid of NYC rats without brutality? Birth control is one idea

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How to get rid of NYC rats without brutality? Birth control is one idea

New York lawmakers are proposing rules to humanely drive down the population of rats and other rodents, eyeing contraception and a ban on glue traps as alternatives to poison or a slow, brutal death.

Politicians have long come up with creative ways to battle the rodents, but some lawmakers are now proposing city and statewide measures to do more.

In New York City, the idea to distribute rat contraceptives got fresh attention in city government Thursday following the death of an escaped zoo owl, known as Flaco, who was found dead with rat poison in his system.

City Council Member Shaun Abreu proposed a city ordinance Thursday that would establish a pilot program for controlling the millions of rats lurking in subway stations and empty lots by using birth control instead of lethal chemicals. Abreu, chair of the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management, said the contraceptives also are more ethical and humane than other methods.

The contraceptive, called ContraPest, is contained in salty, fatty pellets that are scattered in rat-infested areas as bait. It works by targeting ovarian function in female rats and disrupting sperm cell production in males, The New York Times reported.

New York exterminators currently kill rats using snap and glue traps, poisons that make them bleed internally, and carbon monoxide gas that can suffocate them in burrows. Some hobbyists have even trained their dogs to hunt them.

Rashad Edwards, a film and television actor who runs pest management company Scurry Inc. in New York City with his wife, said the best method he has found when dealing with rodents is carbon monoxide.

He tries to use the most humane method possible, and carbon monoxide euthanizes the rats slowly, putting them to sleep and killing them. Edwards avoids using rat poison whenever possible because it is dangerous and torturous to the rodents, he said.

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Some lawmakers in Albany are considering a statewide ban on glue boards under a bill moving through the Legislature. The traps, usually made from a slab of cardboard or plastic coated in a sticky material, can also ensnare small animals that land on its surface.

Edwards opposes a ban on sticky traps, because he uses them on other pests, such as ants, to reduce overall pesticide use. When ants get into a house, he uses sticky traps to figure out where they’re most often passing by. It helps him narrow zones of pesticide use “so that you don’t go spray the entire place.”

“This is not a problem we can kill our way out of,” said Jakob Shaw, a special project manager for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “It’s time to embrace these more common sense and humane methods.”

Two cities in California have passed bans on glue traps in recent years. On the federal level, a bill currently in committee would ban the traps nationwide.

“It ends a really inhumane practice of managing rat populations,” said Jabari Brisport, the New York state senator who represents part of Brooklyn and sponsored the bill proposing the new guidelines. “There are more effective and more humane ways to deal with rats.”

Every generation of New Yorkers has struggled to control rat populations. Mayor Eric Adams hired a “rat czar” last year tasked with battling the detested rodents. Last month, New York City reduced the amount of food served up to rats by mandating all businesses to put trash out in boxes.

While the war on rats has no end in sight, the exterminator Edwards said we can learn a lot from their resilience. The rodents, he said, can never be eradicated, only managed.

“They’re very smart, and they’re very wise,” he said. “It’s very inspiring but just — not in my house.”

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Coachella: Earthquake shakes SoCal desert during music fest

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Coachella: Earthquake shakes SoCal desert during music fest

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) — A small earthquake shook the Southern California desert Saturday near Coachella, where the famous music festival is being held this weekend. No damage or injuries were reported.

The quake, with a preliminary magnitude of 3.8, hit at 9:08 a.m. about 8 miles (13 kilometers) northeast of Borrego Springs in Riverside County, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The epicenter was about 20 miles (32 kilometers) southeast of Coachella. It struck at a depth of about 7 miles (11 kilometers), the USGS said.

A dispatcher with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department said there were no calls reporting any problems from the quake.

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