In a year in which the number of homicides plummeted across California, a few communities were outliers in 2013, leaving crime experts puzzled and some residents on edge.
In Pomona, a city of 150,000 people on the eastern edge of Los Angeles County, killings jumped from 17 to 29, a 70% increase, according to records released Thursday. Communities patrolled by the Riverside County Sheriff's Department recorded a homicide increase of more than 40%.
While overall crime is down in areas covered by the Long Beach Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, homicides remained relatively flat in 2013. Long Beach recorded two more killings and the sheriff one more compared with 2012.
The numbers are all the more striking when compared with cities like Los Angeles, where homicides dropped to the lowest level since 1966. Even traditionally crime-plagued areas did well in 2013: Killing in Oakland dropped from 131 to 92, while Stockton saw homicides plummet by half to 32.
Criminologists said that upticks in Pomona and Riverside County are hard to explain, but that it is far too early to declare any major trends. In smaller communities, localized issues such as gang disputes and reduced police patrols can result in more homicides. Often it can take time for police to create strategies that bring down the violence, they said.
"Homicides are often just a matter of inches about where a shot goes," said James Alan Fox, professor of criminology at Northeastern University.
Robert Weisberg, who heads the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, said the jump in homicides should prompt a rethinking of how police patrol those areas.
"Both of those increases — they're humongous," he said. "Nationally the trend is either flat or down, which makes it even more anomalous."
The rise in killings has rattled Pomona perhaps more than any other place in Southern California. The city has dealt with gang problems for years, but killings over the last two decades have steadily dropped.
Pomona recorded only 11 homicides in 2011, and 17 in 2012. Officials say the 2013 total of 29 is the highest since the 1990s.
"We cringe every time there is homicide," said Pomona Police Capt. Michael Olivieri, who joined the department a year after the city saw a record 44 homicides in 1989. "We are not pleased. It is not acceptable. We believe we're going to suppress it."
Two factors appear to be contributing to Pomona's problems: Violence between young people from warring street gangs and a depleted police force.
According to the city, the number of sworn officers in the department has declined by about 50 since 2010 due to budget cuts.
Police attribute many of the homicides to rising gang violence in certain sections of the city.
The department has been struggling to come up with an effective strategy. Police gang task forces meet every other month to go over gang intelligence, Olivieri said, and plainclothes officers routinely flood the streets to catch criminals in the act. On at least one occasion, he said, a suspect tried to carjack a plainclothes officer.
"There's a conflict out there," he said. "And we're addressing it."
Resident Larry Edwards said the violence is hard to miss.
"Down that way, one guy got shot in the middle of the street," Edwards said, looking down Angela Street. "And down the way, around the corner …"
Edwards has owned a four-unit building in the neighborhood since 1977, and called the violence "cyclical." He recalled four shootings in the area in 2013, including a teenager killed in an alley 100 feet from his building.
He pointed to bullet holes in his building's wall. "There's a gunshot, there's a gunshot," he said. He walked to a nearby light pole and pointed again. "Gunshot."
The Riverside County Sheriff's Department — which covers 17 municipalities and nearly 1.4 million residents — is also struggling to understand why homicides are up.
Though final numbers won't be ready until next month, the agency reported 55 homicides within its jurisdiction between January and October of 2013. An analysis of coroner's records showed at least five other homicides in the remaining two months of the year. The 60 homicides would mark a 46% increase from the 41 killings the department reported in 2012, and the most the agency has seen in the last five years.
As in Pomona, officials in Riverside are puzzled at why there are more killings when preliminary figures show overall violent crime is down.
"We sat down and tried to brainstorm and come up with any trends and see an increase in one particular area, and we didn't come up with anything," sheriff's Lt. Lisa McConnell said. "It's all scattered."
The department's full-time homicide unit has closed more cases in the last year, McConnell said, reporting a 65% closure rate for 2013 homicides compared with 59% the year before.
"It's not a matter of they're just looking at the numbers," McConnell said. "What can we do differently? Are we missing something? They're constantly reviewing their cases and trying to figure it out."
Other area jurisdictions saw increases, but they were markedly smaller. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department recorded 167 homicides in 2013, up one from 2012. The department patrols dozens of communities, including Compton, which has seen an uptick in homicides. Overall violent crime was down nearly 9% from the year before, officials said.
Overall violent crime also fell in Long Beach, down 13.5% from 2012. Homicides were the only violent crime category to rise, Police Chief Jim McDonnell said earlier this month — up to 32 from 30 in 2012. Of the 32 slayings, 19 were investigated as gang-related, the chief said, compared with 14 the year before.
Experts said many factors can contribute to a rise in homicides, and noted some spikes occur without explanation. Fox cautioned that a one-year increase "is nothing to jump to conclusions about."
"The larger the jump, the more likely it will go down," he said.
The real concern for a city and police department, Fox said, is when a jurisdiction records a pattern of increases over several years.
But residents said they already feel less safe.
Pomona resident Yolanda Ambrocio said she used to take her children to play at a local school all the time. But she stopped going out amid a string of shootings in her neighborhood.