A Look at the Looters of Hurricane Harvey [UPDATED]

Many defendants are facing stiffer punishments because they committed crimes during and immediately after Hurricane Harvey.
Many defendants are facing stiffer punishments because they committed crimes during and immediately after Hurricane Harvey. Photo by imelda/Flickr
Many defendants are facing stiffer punishments because they committed crimes during and immediately after Hurricane Harvey. - PHOTO BY IMELDA/FLICKR
Many defendants are facing stiffer punishments because they committed crimes during and immediately after Hurricane Harvey.
Photo by imelda/Flickr
Almost 200 people in the Houston area face extra-harsh charges for crimes committed during or right after Hurricane Harvey, according to records from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.

Another 338 Houstonians were arrested or cited for violating Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s mandatory curfew order. Over the past few weeks, the Houston Press has filed multiple records requests to find out about arrests made during Harvey — and, in particular, whether facts support the dire pronouncements made by pundits and officials during the storm.

As Harvey hung over Houston at the end of August, officials warned of looting and promised stiff punishments. Mayor Sylvester Turner imposed a curfew. Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said certain habitual offenders who looted could face up to life imprisonment for house burglary. Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo vowed to Harvey lawbreakers: “We’re going to push hard to make sure you don’t see the sunlight anytime soon.”

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo vowed to Harvey lawbreakers: “We’re going to push hard to make sure you don’t see the sunlight anytime soon.”

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The tough talk followed a weekend of devastating flooding that left Houston emergency workers stretched thin. 911 callers experienced long wait times. As rescuers helped stranded people from rooftops, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office called on anyone with a boat to join them.

Opportunistic criminals filled the void left by law enforcement. The city warned of house burglars posing as Homeland Security agents. A liquor store and a shoe store were looted, the DA's office said, and a man used an SUV to "try and bust into an ATM machine." But the ensuing panic was also fertile ground for misinformation. Online, trolls used the hashtag #HarveyLootCrew to share inflammatory but misleading images of a region on the brink of anarchy.

“We out here lootin shit from white neighborhoods,” read one tweet, attributed to Twitter account @BrotherTooTurnt. That same account was declared a hoax by Snopes and featured in a 2015 BuzzFeed News article about racists “posing as Baltimore looters on Twitter.”

Officials can assume extra powers during states of disaster or emergency, like the ability to impose curfew. And the harsh punishments District Attorney Ogg promised are at least inspired by the Texas Penal Code. The “enhancement paragraphs,” as these sections of the code are known, impose a minimum sentence of 180 days for Class A misdemeanors when a crime is committed during a disaster.

These extra measures, coupled with a widespread and sometimes-misinformed sense of panic during the storm, raise questions about whether minor offenders were caught up in the law-and-order brouhaha. While the criminal and court records obtained by Press can’t fully answer these questions, they nonetheless paint a troubling picture of the punishments doled out after Harvey.

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office gave the Press a list of 196 people who will receive enhanced charges because of Harvey. While the public might associate “looting” with burglaries, the DA is asking for extra punishments for a variety of offenses, from DUIs and assaults to trespassing and criminal mischief.

Less than half of cases — 73 — are for burglary. Just 15 are for burglarizing a house. And though the records fail to clarify this, at least some of those burglary arrests appear to stem from the same incidents.

Thirty-one of the cases with enhanced charges — almost 20 percent of the total — are for thefts involving less than $750 worth of property. One man got his charge enhanced for possession of two to four ounces of marijuana. Another did because he disobeyed a warning sign or barricade.

Assistant District Attorney Scott Durfee said that, in each case, the decision on whether or not to seek enhanced charges was up to “prosecutorial discretion." In an email, he stressed that prosecutors “review the facts of each offense to determine whether the alleged crime could be linked in some way to the disaster or its aftermath before filing the enhancement.”

Meanwhile, according to records from Houston Municipal Courts, there were 338 people cited for violating Turner’s mandatory curfew. That means that for every alleged looter arrested during Harvey, roughly two other people were dragged into the local court system.

Of course, many of these people were likely at least in the vicinity of looting. Some may have even planned to loot. For instance, there are examples where two people with the same (and not particularly common) last name were arrested on the same day — one for curfew violations, the other for more serious charges.

Again, unfortunately, the records provided to the Press don’t offer enough information to independently confirm this. The Press asked Houston Police Department to estimate what proportion of curfew violators were either planning to commit more serious crimes or were around people doing so. We’ll update this story once we hear back.

Turner’s citywide curfew lasted until September 5 — well after large swaths of Houston had begun to recover. (Before you say, “But my neighborhood wasn’t normal!” keep in mind that Turner kept local curfews in effect for much longer in certain parts of the city, particularly on the west side.) This created a situation in which, after a stressful week cooped up indoors, Houstonians couldn’t legally be out past midnight on a weekend.

In fact, almost half of all curfew violations during Harvey — 157 of them — come from the nights surrounding this weekend, from September 2 until September 4. (This proportion goes up to two-thirds if one also considers September 1 violations from early Friday morning.) Although the Press asked for information on the race, ethnicity and age of people cited for curfew violations, the court didn’t provide those stats. (The Press records request was revised and ultimately did not seek information about race, ethnicity and age of people cited.)

The mayor's office defended Turner's decision to institute a curfew for that long. “Please consider imagining all the burglaries and looting that did not take place because the word got out that curfew violators could be ticketed and/or arrested,” Alan Bernstein, a spokesman for Turner, said in a email.

Bernstein said he couldn't speculate on what proportion of the curfew violators were planning to loot and suggested the Press contact HPD for those estimates.

These data might seem quibbling to anyone who spent Harvey worrying looters. But outside of Houston, the crime fears inspired disturbing comparisons not only to Hurricane Katrina, where critics contended there were vast racial and economic disparities in how survivors were treated, but also to the quintessentially 2017 theme of Fake News. "Right-wing media pushed [a] false, racist narrative of widespread looting during Harvey," the liberal watchdog Media Matters argued. "Experts say the threat of looting is often exaggerated during disasters, and that appears to be the case with Harvey."

A Houston TV reporter sparked nationwide controversy during Harvey when he tweeted about seeing “looting” at a grocery store. Observers drew parallels to media reports from Louisiana in 2005, when the same crimes of desperation were described differently based on the perpetrator's race. “What is the difference between ‘looting’ and ‘finding?’” a Los Angeles Times headline asked. The Miami Herald wrote a piece on the same subject.

The handling of crime during Harvey created other issues as well.

One is transparency. As Harvey ravaged Houston, multiple law enforcement agencies coordinated info through the Joint Information Center at the city's Office of Emergency Management. While the center was a great way to distribute vital updates during the storm, it was also ad hoc and temporary. After the center disbanded, it was briefly unclear who had basic statistics on crime and arrests in Houston, among other things.

Another issue is fairness. In at least one case documented by the Press, a man arrested for curfew violations had an arraignment scheduled for a week after his arrest. Typically, arraignment occurs within 24 hours. A combination of flooded and closed court buildings made that impossible.

“A June court order requires Harris County to release misdemeanor defendants within 24 hours of an arrest if they cannot make bond,” the Press reported during the storm. “It appears from various court filings that in many instances the Houston Press examined, this had not been happening, presumably thanks to Harvey.” Major Gregory Summerlin, a spokesman for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, told the Press that most but not all of these suspects were released within 24 hours, citing flooding and safety issues.

Update, October 24: The Houston Police Department is unsure what proportion of curfew violations are connected, indirectly or not, to cases involving other, more serious charges. “It’s not something that would be traceable,” said Jodi Silva, a spokeswoman for HPD, adding that those data would rely on “the word of someone who has already been arrested.” Silva said it was unlikely HPD would develop more detailed stats on this question, since those stats would relate specifically to Harvey and are “not something we need for predictive use in the future.” 
Clarification, October 26: This story has been updated to clarify that only the most serious looters, such as habitual offenders, would face punishments as stiff as life in prison — though Ogg did not make that distinction in her August 29 news release.

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Stephen Paulsen is a journalist and native Houstonian. He writes about crime, food, drugs, urban planning and extremists of all kinds. He covers local news for Houston Press and cannabis policy for Leafly.