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Homicides in Los Angeles Down by Nearly a Quarter

Times Staff Writers

After Los Angeles led the nation in homicides in 2002, killings reported so far this year have fallen by nearly a quarter, fulfilling a pledge by Police Chief William J. Bratton to make the city safer.

Although homicide statistics are volatile, the former New York police commissioner has so far largely met his goal since taking over the Los Angeles Police Department 15 months ago: Arrests are up and violent crime is down.

Barring an unusual outburst of violence over the last week of the year, homicides will dip to fewer than 500 for 2003, undercutting last year’s count by almost 150 -- a 23% reduction and the lowest number since 1999.

Gun violence also was down by a double-digit percentage, according to the mid-December tally released by the LAPD. Reported shootings had fallen by more than 1,200 compared to the same period in 2002. There were 532 fewer shooting victims this year. Other major categories of crime also improved, but the gains were smaller.

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The gains during Bratton’s first year as chief have been concentrated in some parts of the city where crime was worst -- South Los Angeles neighborhoods where homicides fell by as much as 50%, LAPD data show.

The decline in Los Angeles homicides contrasts with the trend in other cities. Nationwide, homicides in cities with more than 1 million population were up 6% as of midyear, according to FBI statistics released last week. The number of homicides was growing slightly in New York and falling 6% in Chicago.

Locally, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department is reporting a 4% increase in homicides so far this year.

“The only thing we have to be cautious about is that the murder rate is still too high,” said UCLA historian and homicide expert Eric Monkkonen. “But it’s going in the right direction, thankfully.”

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In an interview, Bratton attributed the crime reduction to a number of actions, including an LAPD leadership shakeup that has put more aggressive commanders in charge.

“Cops are back in the streets much more assertively,” Bratton said. Particularly in areas where homicide rates are high, anti-gang and anti-narcotics units are making more arrests -- in some areas more than twice as many as last year, he said.

“A central thesis of mine is getting the cops active, but doing it in a coordinated way,” he said.

Bratton built up deployment in the South Bureau during the first few months of 2003, adding about 180 officers to South Los Angeles.

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Police officers also have been added in the Valley and on the Westside as the overall size of the force has increased slightly, but the increases in those areas have been much smaller.

Bratton said there had been a price for concentrating resources in neighborhoods with the worst crime: The average time for an officer to respond to a call dipped below 10 minutes in the South Bureau but rose elsewhere, topping 10 minutes on the Westside and reaching nearly 12 minutes in the Valley.

Police response times citywide have been increasing for three years despite growth in the number of officers. City officials have offered differing explanations for the increase, including changes in police work schedules and fewer officers available to respond to radio calls because they are assigned to anti-gang units and other specialized duties.

The fact that response times are increasing in some parts of the city while declining in others highlights one of the stickiest problems faced by Bratton’s predecessors: geographic competition for resources.

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The Valley has large numbers of property crimes, and police are stretched thin because officers must cover greater distances to respond to calls. By contrast, South Los Angeles is much denser, distances are shorter and it is relatively easy to move about.

In his first year, Bratton was able to focus on violent crime without losing ground on property crime. In the Valley, property crime declined in four of five divisions. Any erosion in those levels could bring trouble, as Bratton knows.

“The issue for me is, it really required a lot to put 100-some-odd bodies in the South Bureau,” he said. “As you look around the city, other places are screaming” that they need more officers, he added. “That is the great frustration.”

The heightened police presence in the southern part of the city had its greatest effect in the 77th Street Division, in the center of South Los Angeles, which led the city in killings over the last decade. Homicides there tumbled nearly 50%, from 118 last year to 61 by Dec. 13.

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Improvements also were recorded in other high-crime divisions, including Rampart, which covers neighborhoods west of downtown. The Rampart Division was the epicenter of allegations of police corruption in the late 1990s. Violent crime also fell in the Foothill Division, which has the most concentrated gang problem in the Valley.

Countering those gains, homicides climbed in three divisions. Bratton said he was most troubled by a 12.5% increase in the Southeast Division, which neighbors the 77th, because that region also received more officers this year.

Aside from homicides, most indicators of crime and police activity improved only moderately, in many cases failing to regain the levels of 2001, the last full year before Bratton took over.

Bratton also has worked to reinvigorate the gang and narcotics units that had virtually stopped functioning since the Rampart scandal. While arrests for the seven categories of major crime tracked by the FBI climbed about 5% across the department -- still about 11% below the level of 2001 -- the gang and narcotics units increased arrests by more than 50% in one year, and the gang unit more than tripled its output of 2001.

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Former LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks, now a city councilman, said he would reserve judgment until he saw the homicide numbers continue to fall toward the low point reached under his command in 1998 and 1999.

“Crime is something that ebbs and flows,” Parks said. “If you take credit for the decrease this year, you have to take credit for the increase last year.”

Looking ahead, Bratton is far more reserved now than when he predicted in April that homicides would drop by 25% and all major crimes by 10% in 2003. Though he came close to meeting both goals, he concedes he faces a tough challenge in building on those gains. Earlier this year, the City Council rebuffed his bid for 320 more officers.

“The critical problem in Los Angeles is that we don’t have enough police to do everything everywhere at the same time,” Bratton said.

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