A majority of people charged with crimes in the recent Los Angeles riots were Latino--most of them young men--according to the first statistical breakdown of court cases stemming from the unrest.
A RAND Corp. computer analysis of charges filed in local courts in the peak days of the riots found that 51% of the defendants were Latino and 36% were black.
Although unrest among blacks in South Los Angeles after the verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating case apparently led to the start of the riots, by far the biggest single group of eventual offenders were Latino men from 18 to 24 years old, accounting for 30% of the arrests, the analysis determined.
"This was clearly not a black riot. It was a minority riot," said RAND criminologist Joan Petersilia, who examined data on more than 5,000 cases processed through the Los Angeles Municipal Court system.
The ongoing study--the preliminary findings of which were released Wednesday--also found that arrests for curfew violations and other "civil disturbance" offenses outnumbered those for looting.
But the racial and ethnic breakdowns are certain to be the most analyzed part of the data as it is used to answer a fundamental question: Who were the rioters?
Arrest statistics previously released by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department showed that slightly more Latinos than blacks, 45% to 41%, were picked up by law enforcement agencies in the county between April 29 and May 5.
While those statistics were not limited to riot cases, they reflected heavy Latino involvement in the unrest. This was generally attributed to the Latino population plurality in Los Angeles and to widespread looting in their impoverished neighborhoods, such as the Pico-Union district.
The RAND study--showing an even larger gap in arrests among Latinos and blacks--focuses on the same time period but uses a different sample, the 5,633 adults arrested and held for arraignment on felony or misdemeanor charges within the Los Angeles Judicial District. The district, which includes courts from downtown to Van Nuys, handles 47% of the criminal cases in the county but does not include several courthouses--in Compton, Inglewood and Long Beach--that also processed riot cases.
While the data therefore is incomplete and "somewhat squishy," Petersilia said, it was by far the most detailed available on the riots.
Petersilia, former president of the American Society of Criminology, said the Santa Monica-based think tank filtered the cases in an attempt to identify those related to the riots, spotlighting arrests for curfew violations and other "civil disturbance" crimes, along with those for burglary and other "property" crimes stemming from the looting.
Petersilia compared arrests during the riots to those normally made by the Los Angeles Police Department and found percentages that were far higher than usual for blacks and Latinos. Anglos, meanwhile, accounted for only 11% of the arrests during the riot period--down from 42% in normal times.
The RAND analyst noted, however, that such findings are open to numerous interpretations. The high number of Latino arrests, for instance, could "reflect the group's participation in the riot (or) a general failure to flee or resist arrest," a RAND statement said.
But Petersilia offered another theory for the high proportion of Latino arrests. It is possible, she said, that police may have steered away from arresting black men for fear of provoking confrontations.
When it came to women, she said, more blacks than Latinas were arrested. It was only in arrests of the men that the disparity emerged, with far more Latinos taken into custody.
One explanation might be "the black male looked like a very volatile population. . . . (Police) stayed away from them," Petersilia said.
But a Los Angeles police spokesman on Wednesday contested the theory.
"No, I don't buy that," said Lt. John Duncan. "In those (riot) circumstances, you catch who you can. Who knows? (But) I don't buy into any conscious decision" to arrest one group more than another.
Duncan attributed the high Latino arrest totals to simple demographics--Latinos are the largest group in Los Angeles, according to census figures, making up 39% of the city's population and narrowly outnumbering blacks in South Los Angeles. Anglos account for 37% of the total populace and blacks 13%.
Among the other findings of the RAND analysis:
* Blacks who were arrested tended to be older than Latinos arrested, with the greatest number between 25 and 34.
* Although women usually make up 14% of those arrested in Los Angeles, they accounted for only 12% of the riot sample. Black women were charged in equal numbers with curfew and looting violations. But Latinas were twice as likely to be arrested for looting as for staying out after curfew or for other "civil disturbances."
* Los Angeles police made the vast number of arrests in the sample area--about 1,000 in the 24 hours that began at midnight after the controversial King beating verdicts. "Contrary to widespread impression, the data indicate that the LAPD did not lie low for long," the RAND statement noted.
* Although Latino men accounted for most of the arrests overall, blacks accounted for 47% of the arrests on weapons charges, contrasted with 39% for Latinos and 12% for Anglos. While older offenders are usually the ones found with guns, "younger ones were more likely to have a weapon" during the riots, Petersilia said.
Petersilia, who directs RAND's Criminal Justice Research Program, said one flaw in the data is the absence of detail about the location of arrests. She said she hopes eventually to compare the locations to census data to get a better sense of how the arrestees match up against the local population.
"This is really dirty data," she said. "It's not exactly science."
UCLA management Prof. James Q. Wilson, one of the nation's leading experts on crime, also cautioned against drawing sweeping conclusions from such early statistics.
But, like Duncan and some others, he speculated that the high Latino arrest totals in the survey are best explained by population figures.
"Let's say (the rioting) started with blacks . . . then progressed to looting," Wilson said. "If the immediate area is composed mostly of Latinos . . . Latinos are going to be the ones police are going to pick up."
In addition to RAND, the ACLU of Southern California is examining the computerized Municipal Court data, in part to see if there was any discrimination in law enforcement during the riots.
Cathy Dreyfuss, an ACLU staff attorney, said cultural factors could explain why many recent immigrants from Central American countries might have readily submitted to arrest or let police search their homes during sweeps for looted merchandise. "Of course, they're going to let the cops in," she said.
But ACLU research director Allan Parachini said that while "there are more Latinos (arrested) than we expected. . . . My opinion is that it's not that different than what's normal. There are usually more Hispanics (than blacks) arrested" in Los Angeles.
The initial finding, however, "makes it really clear that someone ought to be taking a more structured, detailed well-financed look at this," he said.
Who Were the Rioters? The first detailed statistical study of most of the criminal cases stemming from the Los Angeles riots shows that 51% of the people arrested were Latino, while 36% were black. A breakdown of criminal charges shows that police at first concentrated on snaring looters, but that their focus changed when a curfew was imposed and looting diminished. Over the weekend, most arrests were for curfew violations and other "civil disturbance" offenses. Latinos accounted for a narrow majority of arrests, but among women the arrests of blacks outnumbered those of Latinos. Adults by racial / ethnic group processed by the Los Angeles Municipal Court. Latino Male: 2,619 Female: 233 Total: 2,852 Black Male: 1,756 Female: 281 Total: 2,037 Anglo Male: 471 Female: 130 Total: 601 Other Male: 130 Female: 13 Total: 143 Arrests by type of crime Civil disturbance (Primarily curfew violations): 2,361 Traffic: 426 Drug possession / sale: 244 Property (Primarily looting): 1,964 Violent: 570 Source: RAND Corp.