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Total Murders Down Despite Record High in Gang Killings

Times Staff Writers

The total number of murders in the city of Los Angeles was the lowest in a decade, despite a record number of gang-related slayings in the county in 1988, authorities said Monday.

The Police Department said there were 734 homicides in the city last year, an 11.7% decrease from the 832 murders reported in 1987.

The 1988 toll was the lowest since 1978, when there were 678 homicides in Los Angeles.

The overall drop in murders in Los Angeles was overshadowed, however, by continuing rampages by the city’s street gangs.

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In 1988, for the first time in history, homicides by gang members in Los Angeles County passed 400, but the figures are incomplete, and that number will probably grow.

The number of gang-related killings reported by the Police Department jumped from 205 in 1987 to 257 last year, an increase of 25.3%.

Media Attention Cited

During the same period, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reported a 21.5% increase in gang-related homicides, from 79 to 96. The department has not yet compiled its overall homicide totals for 1988.

Commenting on the variance between gang violence and the city’s overall murder rate, police spokesman Cmdr. William Booth said media attention on the gangs may have made the city seem more dangerous than it is.

“In my own view, Los Angeles is what it has been all along--one of the safest major cities in the United States,” Booth said. “We are statistics-conscious here. And sometimes that makes our problems loom larger than they really are.”

Booth said he had no “scientific” explanation for the overall homicide decline, but he speculated that it may be related to extra resources the department was able to muster in 1988 because of a $17-million overtime appropriation by the City Council and extra funding for about 900 additional officers.

Another factor, he said, could be a change in the Police Department’s policy on domestic violence situations. Before 1987, Booth said, officers often functioned as “counselors” to warring husbands and wives, but now they routinely make arrests when one spouse has battered another.

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A related statistic, Booth said, was a rise of 8% in aggravated assaults, partly the result of arrests made in domestic disturbance calls. In some instances, he said, the police may now be arresting some people before they reach the point of murder.

While Booth expressed satisfaction with the decreased homicide total, he said the final gang statistics for 1988 serve to “harden LAPD’s resolve” to crack down on gang violence.

Countywide figures on gang-related killings are not complete, because many smaller city police departments are continuing to tabulate their statistics. But the totals for the Los Angeles Police Department, the Sheriff’s Department and the cities of Long Beach, Inglewood and Compton alone added up to 406 such deaths, officials said Monday.

Increase Over 1987

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The previous record for gang-related deaths in the county was 387 in 1987.

The decade began with a then-county record of 351 gang-related deaths in 1980, and then gradually decreased by nearly 50% over the next several years. Since then, the annual total has nearly doubled.

Law enforcement officials blame much of the rise on the increased availability of guns in the inner city and skyrocketing cocaine sales in the Los Angeles area since 1984, which has led to numerous violent confrontations between rival gangs.

Police officials, who several months ago said they wanted to begin making a distinction between all homicides by gang members and those that stemmed from gang rivalries, said 54% of the homicides, 75% of the attempted murders and 65% of the felony assaults by gang members in 1988 were “gang-motivated.”

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In counting gang crimes, the police consider crimes to be “gang-related” if either the victim or suspect is a gang member, regardless of motive. To be viewed as “gang-motivated,” the crime must be directly related to gang activity.

Large Valley Increase

The greatest increase by far in gang-related homicides occurred in the Police Department’s Foothill Division in the East San Fernando Valley, where killings rose to 21 from only five the year before, reflecting clashes between both black and Latino gangs.

Other areas that experienced sharp increases included the Police Department’s Southwest Division and the sheriff’s Carson substation.

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The sharpest drops occurred in the Police Department’s Newton Street and Southeast divisions, where many of the police gang sweeps were focused.

More than half of the police jurisdiction killings--53%--occurred in the department’s South Bureau.

The year-to-year increases were smaller than had been predicted last spring, when a wave of gang homicides brought predictions that the death total would double.

Possible Drop in Homicides

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Sheriff Sherman Block told a recent news conference that he sees a possibility that gang homicides will drop this year.

Block noted that while the pace of gang killings increased by nearly a third during the first five months of 1988, they stayed close to the 1987 rate during the last seven months of the year. That drop coincided with the street deployment of an additional 75 deputies, who concentrated their efforts on reducing gang violence.

“Making that comparison, we believe that the presence of the additional gang-suppression people in the community did have an impact on the overall level of gang activity,” the sheriff said.

The Police Department attempted the most heavily publicized gang crackdown in history during 1988, with what Chief Daryl F. Gates initially called “The Hammer"--sweeps by as many as 1,000 officers on weekend evenings. The crackdowns, which began in February, resulted in 24,094 arrests, including 13,548 gang members, through November.

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Los Angeles Police Lt. Fred Nixon said the jump in gang-related homicides may be skewed by the increased focus the department has made in keeping gang statistics.

“It is important to point out that not very long ago we had 15,000 gang members listed in our gang files. Thanks to increased efforts on our part, we have now 26,000, meaning the chances of classifying crimes as gang-related is tremendously greater,” Nixon said.

In sharp contrast to the statistics for Los Angeles, gang homicides in Compton--which had more than any police division or sheriff’s substation in 1987--plunged 43%, to 26 from 46. Officials there attributed the decrease to the jailing of a number of the city’s most violent gang members.

The tiny city of Bell Gardens, which had nine gang-related homicides in 1987, reported none last year.

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Times staff writers George Ramos and Kenneth J. Garcia contributed to this article. WHERE GANGS KILLED

The massive anti-gang sweeps by the Los Angeles Police Department appeared to make a dent in gang homicides in some inner-city areas, according to police. But sharp increases occurred elsewhere.

1987 1988 L.A. POLICE DEPT. DIVISIONS Central 3 1 Hollenbeck 8 10 Newton 36 26 Northeast 4 6 Rampart 8 15 77th 34 45 Harbor 12 18 Southeast 53 43 Southwest 14 31 Hollywood 6 6 Pacific 3 8 West L.A. 3 7 Wilshire 11 9 Devonshire 0 2 Foothill 5 21 N. Hollywood 3 5 Van Nuys 2 1 West Valley 0 3 Total 205 257 SHERIFF’S DEPT. SUBSTATIONS Altadena 0 1 Carson 8 14 East L.A. 7 0 Firestone 12 17 Industry 1 4 Lakewood 6 8 Lennox 17 17 Lynwood 28 28 Norwalk 0 2 Pico Rivera 0 1 Walnut 0 4 Total 79 96 MAJOR MUNICIPALITIES Compton 46 26 Long Beach n.a. 19 Inglewood 9 8

HOMICIDES BY GANG MEMBERS IN LOS ANGELES COUNTY Gang homicides, which reached a new record in 1988, have increased 50% in three years. 1980: 351 1981: 292 1982: 205 1983: 216 1984: 212 1985: 271 1986: 328 1987: 387 1988: 406* *Total does not include numerous small cities that have yet to report their statistics.

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