For the first time in more than four decades, Los Angeles is on track to end the year with fewer than 300 killings, a milestone in a steady decline of homicides that has changed the quality of life in many neighborhoods and defied predictions that a bad economy would inexorably lead to higher crime.
As of mid-afternoon on Sunday, the Los Angeles Police Department had tallied 291 homicides in 2010. The city is likely to record the fewest number of killings since 1967, when its population was almost 30% smaller.
Strikingly, homicides in the city have dropped by about one-third since 2007, the last full year before the economic downturn, according to a Times' analysis of coroner records. Throughout the rest of the county, which is patrolled by the L.A. County sheriff and individual cities' police departments, homicides during the same period tumbled by nearly 40%. The Times' analysis showed 159 homicides in areas patrolled by the Sheriff's Department and 164 in the rest of the county through mid-December.
INTERACTIVE: Track crime in your neighborhood on Crime L.A. and Homicide Report databases
The city's total translates into roughly 7.5 killings per 100,000 people and puts it in league with New York City and Phoenix as having among the lowest homicide rates among major U.S. cities.
"I never thought we'd see these numbers," said Sal LaBarbera, a veteran homicide detective with the LAPD. "It is night and day compared to the old days. Night and day."
Longer-term declines are even more notable. The city's homicide rate this year marks a 75% drop from 1992, when 1,092 people were killed during a crack cocaine epidemic and gang wars. Homicides investigated by the Sheriff's Department have dropped by more than half since the mid-1990s.
The change, experts say, is not easily explained and is probably the result of several factors working together, including effective crime-fighting strategies, strict sentencing laws that have greatly increased the number of people in prison, demographic shifts and sociological influences.
A significant factor, said Columbia University Law School Professor Jeffrey Fagan, is the absence of a drug epidemic in recent years. The three distinct periods in U.S. history when homicides have spiked, he said, coincide with the emergence of heroin, powder cocaine and crack cocaine, each of which gave rise to "a chaotic, violent street drug culture."
The decline in homicide rates can be seen in places like Los Angeles' West Adams neighborhood. A strip along the south side of the Santa Monica Freeway that is home to about 22,000 people, the neighborhood tallied 17 homicides between 2007 and 2009, making it one of the deadlier areas in the city.
Then, the killing stopped.
Barring deadly violence in the next few days, West Adams will end 2010 with no homicides since a fatal stabbing early on Christmas morning a year ago.
"We are such a small area, we felt every one of those killings," said Elbert Preston, 59, a lifelong resident of the area and president of the West Adams neighborhood council. "It's great to see the changes that are happening here. I give a lot of credit to the work the police are doing, especially on the gangs. But it's also about people in the community becoming more involved."
A few neighborhoods, including Watts and Westlake, have struggled with homicide rates that have not declined significantly over the last four years. Many others, like West Adams, have seen a significant decline. Homicides in the Vermont Square neighborhood of South Los Angeles, for example, have declined in each of the last four years, from 15 in 2007 to three so far this year, the Times' analysis found. Killings in Compton and Long Beach held steady for the three previous years, then posted steep declines this year.
Homicides, which are less likely than other crimes to go unreported, are a bellwether of overall crime rates. Through Dec. 18, the LAPD had posted an 11% decline city-wide in overall violent crime — homicides, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults — compared with the same period last year. Major property crimes in the city were down 6% from last year, according to LAPD statistics. It is the eighth consecutive year that crime has fallen in the city.
Crime in areas patrolled by the Sheriff's Department has been largely stagnant this year, with violent and property crime rates through the end of November down slightly from last year, department figures show.
Law enforcement officials say they worry that depleted resources and staffing shortages brought on by the fiscal crisis could erode their gains. The LAPD has had no money to pay officers for overtime. In lieu of being paid cash, officers have had to take compensatory time off from work. The plan has had the effect of cutting the force by the equivalent of about 500 officers.
In the Sheriff's Department, deputies had to neglect regular assignments for several hours each month in order to carry out routine patrols and low-level administrative tasks. The reshuffling allowed the cash-strapped department to significantly cut overtime but drew grumblings from within the ranks.
In the meantime, however, police officers have been taking satisfaction in the numbers. "Absent some disaster, we're going to have the best year we've had in decades. There were a bunch of indicators warning us that that shouldn't have happened," LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said in a recent interview. "It is a real complex equation.... The factors are a hundredfold and police are, to me, the biggest one."
Beck and his command staff have been talking quietly for months about cracking the 300 barrier, an arbitrary milestone but one with symbolic importance for showing how far the homicide toll in the city has fallen.
How much further the rates could drop is unknown. In Los Angeles city and county, more than in most other U.S. metropolitan areas, gangs play a major role in the story of homicides.
Gang-related homicides account for about half of all killings here, law enforcement officials and researchers estimate. And although there are few things police can do to lower the number of killings that arise from domestic abuse incidents, hit-and-run accidents and other isolated situations, shootings that stem from gang rivalries and initiation rites can be cut with targeted strategies, gang experts believe.
"Before, everyone was under the traditional police strategy of 'arrest your way out of everything,' " said Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca. But in recent years, law enforcement and elected officials have begun to embrace a new approach to combating gang violence that meshes traditional crime fighting with programs to forestall violence, such as one that trains former gang members to intervene between rival gangs.
Civil rights attorney Connie Rice, who was instrumental in pushing through the new strategy, is among those who believe it has begun to pay dividends. She has expressed hope that in coming years, the number of gang-related killings in the city will drop even further.
"We still have far too much gang violence. We've been able to cut away at the edges and limit it when it occurs, but we haven't eliminated it," Beck said. "I know it's a big city, but it doesn't have to be like this."
Times staff writers Doug Smith, Ken Schwencke and Ben Welsh contributed to this report.