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Keeping Track, Changing Course as 2015 Begins

Happy new year and welcome to Essential California, our weekly newsletter on the Golden State. I’m Shelby Grad, The Times’ California editor.

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The Numbers Don’t Lie

The Times newsroom is filled with reporters and editors who have a passion for data journalism. And over the last year, they focused their efforts on assessing how various branches of local government work. Some of the findings were startling. Others confirmed what many people already believed. But we hope each one, in some way, informed the public debate. Here are some examples:

Questions have arisen over the accuracy of some crime statistics from the Los Angeles Police Department.

L.A. police, fire and civilian employees take longer, costlier injury leaves than those in other jurisdictions in the state.

— Eastside neighborhoods wait significantly longer than others for building inspectors to respond to complaints of possible illegal construction and other issues.

A large number of recruits in L.A.’s city and county fire departments are related to current employees, and the new classes lack diversity.

— Certain neighborhoods in L.A. get a disproportionate amount of street-sweeping tickets.

Hit-and-run incidents involving cyclists are rising as police struggle to solve cases.

In many ways, Obamacare is changing California.

— The complicated and largely hidden web of money that pushed Proposition 47.

Water pipe breaks are more common in some neighborhoods than others.

— Many landmark buildings are along the Hollywood earthquake fault.

— Metro can’t figure out how many riders are using rail for free.

— Why Thursday evening is the Southern California commuter’s worst nightmare.

Driver’s Licenses, Immigrants and Change

How much have attitudes changed about allowing immigrants who are in the country illegally to obtain California driver’s licenses?

One measure is how little criticism or controversy we’ve seen as immigrants began lining up to get the licenses on Friday.

It was just 20 years ago that California voters approved Prop. 187, which barred those in the U.S. illegally from receiving many public services, let alone driver’s licences. In 1979, a Times article titled "Alien Drivers Seen as Perils on the Streets” captured sentiments of that era.

Polling has shown that Californians' views have changed significantly over a time — immigrants here illegally are seen less as a threat and more as an asset. That attitude appears to have spilled over into the issue of driver’s licenses. A 2013 USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll showed narrow overall support for driver's licenses (nearly 69% of Latino voters supported the idea, as did 44% of whites).

Critics say it sends the wrong message to give licenses to those here illegally. But DMV officials said they believe that requiring all drivers to get registered and take tests will make the roads safer.

All this was a particularly big moment for L.A. City Councilman Gilbert Cedillo, who as a state legislator pushed the issue for so many years that he got the nickname "One Bill Gil.” Recalling those battles, he said: "It was difficult politically to carry a legislation for a community that was vilified, not appreciated, and marginalized.”

Guns, Drugs and the Law

The massacre last year near UC Santa Barbara by a troubled college student heightened the debate about guns and how to treat people with emotional and mental problems. It also prompted several new laws in California that went into effect Jan. 1.

The gunman, Elliot Rodger, killed six and wounded 13 others. There had been warning signs that Rodger suffered from mental illness and might be a threat to others. Less than a month before the attack, police had visited Rodger to check on his welfare but did not know he had guns.

One new law allows police or family members to seek a restraining order that bars a person deemed dangerous from possessing firearms for 21 days. Another requires law enforcement agencies to develop policies encouraging officers to consult a state database that shows who owns guns before checking on someone who is potentially dangerous.

On the issue of drugs, another new California law seeks to right what critics long have seen as an injustice in the legal system: Those convicted of possessing crack cocaine for sale, who previously could be sentenced to three to five years in jail, now face two to four years — the same penalty applied to offenses involving powder cocaine.

Weekend Reading

Finally, here are some great reads for your weekend:

— “Stephanie Edwards and Bob Eubanks … have had more drama in their Rose Parade partnership than most long-married couples,” writes Robin Abcarian.

— A man with surveillance cameras and a mission in South L.A.

— The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department diet.

Violent crime is up in L.A. for the first time in 12 years.

— New details but no resolution in the shooting of Ezell Ford.

— How the L.A. City Council embraced, then rejected, a ban on genetically modified crops.

— Our best graphics and reader photos from 2014.

— When Father Boyle and Sister Mary get together, watch out.

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