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Crime tally falls again in L.A. County sheriff's territory

Crime is down in places that the L.A. County Sheriff's Department patrols, but the "why" goes unexplained

Crime decreased for a second consecutive year in areas of Los Angeles County patrolled by the Sheriff's Department, continuing a long-term downward trend locally that experts are at a loss to fully explain.

Preliminary statistics from the department through Dec. 29 show that violent crime decreased nearly 4% in 2014 from the previous year and that homicides fell more than 11%. Property crime was down more than 7%.

Over the last five years, violent crime in the sheriff's territory, which includes unincorporated areas and 42 cities that contract for police services, has fallen more than 21%, homicides 30%. From a peak of 424 homicides in 1992, there were 148 in 2014.

Crime has declined nationally over the last several decades, stabilizing recently in some urban areas while continuing to fall in much of Southern California. Experts cite factors such as demographic and economic changes and altered sentencing laws, along with policing tactics, but they do not know exactly what is causing the shift.

Crime in L.A. County has dropped significantly since 1992, when there were more than 144,000 violent and property crimes. In 2014, the total will be fewer than 70,000. Like L.A. County, most other major law enforcement agencies in the area reported another year with fewer crimes.

Assistant L.A. County Sheriff Michael Rothans said that although he is pleased with the 2014 figures, the department is working to reverse crime surges in a few communities.

"I don't think you can point to one thing. I don't think you can say it's just the Sheriff's Department going out and arresting people," Rothans said. "We like to think the partnership we have with the communities we serve makes a big difference."

The Orange County Sheriff's Department also reported less crime, including a 6% drop in violent and property offenses for the first 11 months of 2014. In Long Beach, the Police Department reported 21 homicides in 2014, down from 32 in the first 11 months of 2013, along with a drop of more than 4% in violent crime.

The city of Los Angeles, which is not included in the L.A. County statistics, bucked the trend. For the first time in more than a decade, violent crime was up in the city, increasing by more than 12%. There were more robberies, homicides and rapes in 2014. A 24% increase in reports of aggravated assault was at least due partly to changes the LAPD made following a Times investigation that found some crimes were miscategorized as minor offenses.

In L.A. County sheriff's territory, rape was the only violent crime that increased. It was up more than 4% from 2013 but down nearly 14% since 2009.

Charis Kubrin, a criminologist at UC Irvine, said the data "raises more questions than it answers" about what may drive the changes in crime numbers, because it is difficult to know what sociological factors are at work and conditions can vary by neighborhood. She characterized law enforcement as mostly responding to crime rather than preventing it.

"Whether crime is up or down or stays the same, the police have very little impact," she said.

Assistant Sheriff Rothans said it was too soon to gauge the effect of Proposition 47, which was passed by voters Nov. 4 and downgrades some nonviolent crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. As of late December, sheriff's deputies had issued misdemeanor citations to more than 1,600 people who previously would have been arrested for such crimes as drug possession or shoplifting. More than 90 of them were subsequently arrested for new offenses.

"We're happy that the countywide trend continues to decrease," Rothans said. "But we're ever vigilant that perception for many people is reality, that even though crime may be down, that if people perceive they're unsafe, it doesn't matter what the numbers are."

In response to an increase in property crime in Cerritos in 2013, sheriff's officials held town hall meetings and encouraged Asian immigrant residents to report suspicious activity, Rothans said. In 2014, burglary in Cerritos decreased 22%, though it was still up 21% from five years ago.

Countywide, burglaries dropped 13% from 2013 and 15% in the last five years. Auto theft decreased 9% from 2013 and 21% from five years ago.

Although homicides were down overall, a few patrol stations, including Carson, saw an increase. There were 15 homicides in the Carson area in 2014, compared with five in 2013 and six in 2009. The area also saw a 50% rise in gang-related shootings.

In Compton, which has the highest murder rate among the county patrol stations, homicides were down to 30 in 2014 from 37 in 2013.

In the area patrolled by the South Los Angeles station, there were 15 homicides in 2014, compared with 19 in 2013 and 22 five years ago. Violent and property crimes were up nearly 3% from 2013. Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who took office Dec. 1, said at a recent gun buyback event that he hopes to reduce crime in the area 5% in 2015.

Pico Rivera station saw a nearly 12% increase overall in violent crime, fueled by a 40% spike in robberies. Both robberies and aggravated assaults increased in the area from five years ago.

In South El Monte, which is patrolled by the Temple City station, crime increased 44% from 2013, mostly due to an uptick in property crimes such as vehicle burglaries. Rothans said that targeted police work and community outreach have helped and that the increase slowed in the second half of 2014.

cindy.chang@latimes.com

Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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