Crime continues to fall in Los Angeles despite bad economy

Many other parts of Southern California report similar drops. Some officials had predicted the opposite. In L.A., the figures support Chief William Bratton’s theories and impress even his critics.

By Joel Rubin and Richard Winton
Los Angeles Times
January 1, 2009

Despite a reeling economy, crime in Los Angeles and many other parts of Southern California fell in 2008 for the sixth consecutive year, challenging the widely held theory that crime rises at times of economic tumult.

The continued decline, while less pronounced than in previous years, comes even as other major American cities, including New York and Chicago, have seen increases in some crimes, notably homicides.

Violent crimes — such as homicides and rapes — and crimes involving thefts in Los Angeles were down about 2.5% through Saturday compared with the same period of 2007, according to Los Angeles Police Department figures. The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, which handles law enforcement for dozens of other cities, reported a 6% drop in such crimes committed through the end of November. In all, the declines amounted to about 8,500 fewer serious crimes committed in 2008.

Throughout the region, crime was generally down or stagnant. The Orange County Sheriff’s Department, which serves unincorporated areas and 12 cities, saw serious crime drop slightly. In Santa Ana, the county’s largest city, there was a rise in homicides, but overall violent and property crimes dropped nearly 10%. Likewise, the city of San Bernardino had 7% fewer crimes through last month and the city of San Diego was projected to finish the year with a modest downturn.

The numbers are striking in part because some law enforcement officials — notably Sheriff Lee Baca — predicted a year ago that the ailing economy would probably result in crime increases, particularly in struggling neighborhoods where unemployment was on the rise. Unemployment in Los Angeles County is now near 9%. But the rise in crime has not materialized.

Baca and other law enforcement officials said it still may just be a matter of time.

“Expectation of having more crime occur in dire economic times is practical expectation that has been evident from other cycles of depressed times,” Baca said. “We aren’t experiencing real hard economic times yet. In my opinion we have to prepare ourselves that things could get worse.”

The last time the U.S. economy faltered over a prolonged period, Los Angeles fared badly. In 1991 and 1992, crime soared to levels roughly three times the current figures. At the time, the unemployment rate in the city hovered between 8% and 10% and the crack cocaine epidemic was in full swing. The population also had a higher percentage of young males, who are most likely to commit crimes. Crime rose significantly in Orange County at the time as well.

The number of homicides in the city of Los Angeles, a bellwether crime statistic watched closely by police and the public, continued to fall in 2008. With four days left in the year, 376 people had been killed — 24 fewer than in the same period the year before. The total marks a 27% drop from the 517 people slain five years ago and is far below the peak of 1,092 killings the city recorded in 1992.

The drop in violence is due, in part, to the LAPD’s success in reducing gang-related crimes. Gang killings are down more than a quarter from the previous year, and the number of assaults by suspected gang members is down significantly as well.

The LAPD’s success stemming the bloodshed in the nation’s second-largest city stands out in a year in which other major urban centers saw homicide figures climb. New York City had 513 killings through last week, a nearly 5% increase over last year. Chicago suffered a more pronounced upsurge in violence, with 479 homicides through November, a 17% jump.

That Los Angeles’ lower numbers come after months of severe economic turmoil is especially satisfying for Police Chief William J. Bratton. He has long feuded with criminologists over the effect police have on crime rates. Academics have criticized the chief harshly, dismissing his vehement claim that police, more than any other factor, drive crime up or down. They argue that, although officers may have some effect, they are powerless to counter larger forces such as a spiraling economy or drug epidemics that can push people to desperation.

LAPD Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger said the 2008 statistics, coupled with the long-running streak of falling crime, prove Bratton’s point. “We have shown time and again that if you invest in law enforcement and hold police accountable . . . you will absolutely have a very definitive effect on crime,” Paysinger said.

Bratton, in recent interviews, attributed the LAPD’s success largely to “putting cops on the dots,” an often-used reference to the department’s strategy of closely tracking and dissecting crimes with computerized mapping systems and deploying officers accordingly. He said he expects crime to fall further in 2009 as several hundred new officers complete their training and join the force as part of a continuing push to increase the size of the department.

Like other criminologists who have been critical of Bratton’s reasoning, UC Irvine professor George Tita acknowledged the LAPD’s success, saying the department’s crime-fighting strategies have reaped results. He did not back away, however, from the idea that a prolonged economic downturn would put Bratton’s claims to a rigorous test.

“If the recession lasts for a good long period here, then you are likely to increase the level of frustration in a community,” he said. “That might manifest itself in more interpersonal crime such as assault, homicide or robbery.”

Baca made claims similar to Bratton’s and Paysinger’s, giving credit for the drop in crime in the county to the work of his deputies, community outreach efforts and the decision by the Board of Supervisors to spare the department from budget cuts.

In Los Angeles, the historic chasm in levels of violence between rich and poor neighborhoods remained. The department’s West L.A. Division, for example, recorded only four homicides and 15 rapes, while in the Southeast Division, which includes Watts and an adjacent part of South-Central, 47 people were killed and 58 raped.

The LAPD failed to meet the goal it set at the beginning of 2008 to reduce overall serious crime by 5%.

Paysinger said the department fell short in large part because of an unusual number of large, unexpected events such as the recent Sylmar wildfire that forced it to divert hundreds of officers away from regular assignments.

Paysinger declined to say what target for crime reduction the LAPD would set for this year, but said the department would “do more than just try to hold the line.”

Several LAPD divisions reported increases in property crimes such as burglaries and stolen vehicles, as well as robberies, in which force or the threat of force is used. In the Central Division, which includes downtown’s skid row, robberies climbed 21% and property crimes were up 6% through Saturday. The rise was less significant elsewhere, such as in the Foothill, Harbor and Van Nuys divisions, which all saw about a 3% climb in property crimes.

It is too early to tell whether the upticks are a harbinger of things to come. Paysinger and other LAPD officials played down the significance of the increases, saying the figures represented a relatively small rise in the number of crimes being committed and were part of the normal “ebb and flow” of crime trends.

“These things happen,” said Capt. Rick Wall, a commander in the Central Division. “Some years numbers go up a little; some years they’re down. The important thing is we are not seeing any patterns that point” to larger problems.

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