Murder in Our Midst: Solutions Are Possible

There is no single solution to the murder epidemic, no single antidote to the thousands of unsolved cases chronicled in the Times series "And Justice for Some: Solving Murders in L. A. County." But each installment of the seven-part series outlined remedies, some attitudinal, some governmental, that could help reduce the tragedy of killers getting away with murder.

As a 20-month study by The Times documented, the Los Angeles Police Department and the county Sheriff's Department can present only a thin line against this scourge. We need more cops, and they need better equipment and support services. Los Angeles has to muster the political will, from the Hall of Administration, City Hall and Parker Center to the humblest neighborhood organization, to stand up to the rampant violence.

There are no "natural-born killers." No one is born into the gangs, which account for nearly 40% of all murders in the county. No one is born dealing drugs. The escape routes from these destructive paths include better schools, good jobs and two-parent families. These goals should be encouraged through public policies and social efforts. Any timely intervention--from a teacher, mentor, neighbor or relative--could draw a vital, visible line on behavior. Stop trouble now or pay for it later.

Police officers can turn the tide and catch more killers if they are in the right place at the right time, the Times series points out. The push by Mayor Richard Riordan and President Clinton to put more officers on the streets is part of the answer, but no local government--as the L.A. City Council correctly determined during budget deliberations--can afford to hire more cops at the expense of all else. However, both the LAPD and the Sheriff's Department could use many more homicide detectives, enough to halve the impossibly heavy individual caseload.

At a murder scene, detectives depend on expert criminalists, trained in collecting critical blood and trace evidence, but because of short staffing, those specialists find themselves able to go to only about 15% of murder scenes. The O.J. Simpson criminal trial spotlighted the deficiencies of the unaccredited LAPD crime lab, and that investigation got the best that local law enforcement had to offer.

Overall, the numbers are staggering: 9,442 murders in Los Angeles County in the five years studied by The Times, 1990 through 1994. Police officers, sheriff's deputies, criminalists, prosecutors and others in the struggling criminal justice system all are overwhelmed by the tide. Because these personnel are so overloaded, mistakes are made, and as a result of delays and carelessness, innocent people are charged. Even dead men have been wrongfully suspected of murder. And the guilty sometimes go free.

In recent years there have been almost 2,000 so-called willful homicides annually in Los Angeles County, the series points out. Yet only half of murder investigations lead to arrests and charges. Only a third end with a suspect convicted of murder or manslaughter. That wasn't the case 25 years ago. Four out of five homicides were solved in Los Angeles County back then. The killers often were relatives or acquaintances of the victims, and the crimes tended to take place in homes or other clearly defined settings. That was before the term "drive-by shooting" became part of the local vernacular.

The Times series substantiates in detail what some experts have been warning about. The murder rate is too high. The conviction rate is unacceptably low. And social status plays a part in investigations. If a victim is rich, white and newsworthy, the killer is more likely to be identified, convicted and sentenced. If the victim is poor, Latino or black, a suspect is not as likely to be caught, found guilty and punished. Younger cops and more female, black, Latino and Asian detectives are needed to eradicate old prejudices that get in the way of solving murders.

What we all can do starts in our communities and homes. Teenagers and younger children need attention and guidance. They need role models who can show the way to constructive lives. Take back our streets with compassion and good sense and good policing.

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