South L.A. Killings Get Less Police Attention Than Others

Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles Police Department has for years assigned more detectives per homicide in safer, more affluent parts of the city than in Central and South L.A., where the murder problem is most acute.

People killed in the city's most dangerous neighborhoods over the last 12 years have gotten less attention from LAPD investigators, on average, than those killed in West Los Angeles or the San Fernando Valley, according to an analysis by The Times.

This disparity has helped create a backlog of unsolved killings -- nearly 5,500 -- concentrated mostly south of the Santa Monica Freeway.

Hundreds of blocks in the hardest-hit neighborhoods have three or more unsolved homicides each. Those who live near these murder scenes know the killers may still be at large -- perhaps close by. Residents talk of fear and an atmosphere of lawlessness. No region of the Valley or West L.A. has a similar concentration of unsolved homicides.

Although the LAPD has employed more homicide detectives in the South Bureau, the difference has not been enough to balance workloads with those of detectives in other bureaus, the Times' analysis found.

For example, as of last week, the LAPD's Southeast Division, which covers 10 square miles in the Watts area, had more homicides this year than the 200 square miles of the San Fernando Valley. One Valley division, Devonshire, has four detectives who had investigated 11 homicides this year. Southeast has twice as many detectives -- eight -- but they have had to investigate more than three times as many homicides -- 37.

Interviewed about The Times' findings, Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton said that he has been planning to shift detectives so that "we put bodies where the workload is." Changes will come in the next few months, he said, including more parity in homicide caseloads.

The explanation of the city's failure to put homicide detectives where they are most needed is the story of an LAPD divided between two worlds. In one, residents jam police lines with complaints of larceny and stolen cars. In the other, people are hurt and killed in the streets.

The LAPD's limited detective ranks are stretched between these competing demands, and across four vast geographic bureaus: South, Central, West L.A., and the Valley.

For decades, the department has provided a full complement of investigators in every one of its 18 divisions in these bureaus, even those with few homicides.

The arrangement has kept many constituents happy, but it has made it difficult for the LAPD to even out the workload.

Except for a brief period in the mid-1990s, the number of homicide detectives deployed to South L.A., the area with the highest number of killings, has never been equal to the task. For the dozen years covered by The Times' analysis, South Bureau detectives had caseloads that were nearly 30% higher than the average for their Valley and Westside counterparts; Central Bureau detectives had caseloads that were about 60% higher.

South L.A. has the most unsolved cases -- more than 2,000 over 12 years. This is nearly 40% of the total unsolved cases citywide, even though South Bureau residents make up only 18% of the city's population, according to LAPD statistics.

Central has the second largest number of unsolved cases, with 1,775.

Both these bureaus have higher proportions of minority victims than the Westside or the Valley. South Los Angeles victims were 67% black and 26% Latino. Central victims were 18% black and 63% Latino.

LAPD executives from the 1990s said they had little choice in deployment. They could not have assigned more detectives to homicide without depleting the ranks of those investigating other crimes, they argued.

But a UCLA historian and homicide expert, Eric Monkkonen, when asked to comment on The Times' findings, criticized the deployment of detectives, saying that homicide should be given more priority. The most afflicted neighborhoods, he argued, should get proportionately more detectives, not fewer.

"Isn't it a no-brainer?" asked Monkkonen, the author of four books on crime and the editor of a 15-volume history of criminal justice. "If you have a fire, that's where you send the firetrucks."

Unsolved homicides are concentrated in South L.A. largely because there are more killings there. But South Bureau's overworked detectives also solve cases at lower rates.

Since 1990, their arrest rates on average have been 23% lower than those of their colleagues in the Valley, for example, where investigators handle fewer cases and have more time.

Homicide detectives say it is especially difficult to make arrests in South L.A. Police have historically had a troubled relationship with minorities in this part of the city -- especially blacks. In addition, fear of gang retaliation makes witnesses reluctant to step forward. Detectives say they often need extra time to find them and persuade them to talk.

Only 150 of 1,610 LAPD detectives specialize in homicide. The detectives are thinly spread among burglary, auto theft, sex and other crimes. The Valley is heavy on property crime, lighter on killings. South L.A., by contrast, is lighter on property crime, heavy on killings.

Workloads matter in homicide investigations. More detective time, especially in the first few hours and days after a killing, increases the number of arrests, said Charles Wellford, a University of Maryland criminology professor.

Homicide detectives also need flexibility. The most successful police departments, Wellford said, are those willing to give a detective enough time to "stay on a case as long as he or she thought was necessary."

Homicide investigations require a kind of craftsmanship that may not fit easily into workload formulas such as the LAPD's, Wellford said.

Some cases are solved on the spot. Others take years. Detectives need to be able to respond quickly to a midnight arrest that yields a tip, or a witness who surfaces unexpectedly, police supervisors say. But they can't when saddled with too many cases.

Many detectives put an ideal caseload at six per year for a two-detective team. And an LAPD internal committee recently suggested a benchmark of 10.

But South and Central bureau detective teams commonly worked as many as 28 cases in the busiest years of the early 1990s, according to interviews, department logs and coroner's records. Valley and West L.A. detectives were harried too, but few detective teams there worked more than 15 cases a year.

Over the years, the LAPD has faced political controversy for trying to shift resources around the city. But there has been little public pressure to overhaul its deployment of homicide investigators.

The LAPD has made some efforts to even the scales over the years. The most significant was creation of a special homicide bureau in South L.A. in 1989. Detectives were transferred from station houses to a single office -- South Bureau Homicide -- to better manage the workload. Their ranks grew. Ten FBI agents were also assigned to the office for six years, part of a federal anti-violence initiative.

It helped. But even so, South Bureau caseloads on average throughout the 1990s remained higher than those in the Valley and West L.A. The number of homicides was just too high. Even counting the borrowed FBI agents, South caseloads were, on average, about 15% higher than the average for West and Valley from 1990 to 2002.

The disparity began to even out in mid- to late-1990s as homicides in Los Angeles followed a nationwide decline. Detective caseloads plummeted. In 1998, South Bureau caseloads briefly dipped below those in the Valley for the first time in years.

South Bureau homicide detectives used the respite to reopen cold cases. What happened next suggests that many old cases would have been solvable, if detectives had had more time. From 1995 to 1998, they cleared more than 100 unsolved cases, making a dent in the backlog.

But the victory was short-lived. In 1999, as part of a change in LAPD policy, South Bureau Homicide was disbanded, and the number of homicide detectives assigned to South L.A. stations was cut nearly in half.

Caseloads immediately shot back up in the South Bureau. By 2000, the former inequities had returned.

Former Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, now a city councilman, who made the decision to redeploy homicide detectives, argued that the decline in South's caseloads justified the cuts to their ranks. Other investigative units, such as those working burglary and other specialties in the Valley, needed their fair share of investigators, Parks said.

"You can't come up and say homicides rule the day," he said. "Then what is it that you don't do? Do you not investigate auto theft? Not investigate burglary?"

The LAPD is still using the same formula to guide its assignment of detectives. Some LAPD officials conceded the system may be outdated, but Parks argued that it still works.

Low-crime neighborhoods may get more homicide detectives than they need, he acknowledged. But the effect is balanced because the formula usually allots them fewer in other areas, he said. The extra homicide detectives can always be kept busy by helping investigate assault or domestic violence, he said.

Detectives say the argument is flawed. South Bureau homicide detectives still have the least flexibility. In West Los Angeles, for example, two homicide detectives have investigated only two homicides this year, and spent the rest of their time working on lesser crimes. But they can set aside these cases when they need to investigate a homicide. Their South Bureau colleagues, called to killing after killing, have no such luxury.

Bratton said he is reviewing the detective workload formula. He also wants to improve police investigations by providing better administrative and lab services and by requiring more detectives to work nights so they can get to crime scenes faster. Finally, Bratton predicts he will reduce crime throughout L.A. This means, he said, that homicide investigators will have more time to work on cases.

South Bureau commanders also have tried to apply what little surplus they have in patrol ranks to put 20 more officers to work solving older cases, particularly serious assaults. Homicides will soon follow, said South Bureau Chief Earl Paysinger.

Meanwhile, the old patterns have continued. In 2002, South L.A. homicides helped drive a 10% citywide increase in killings, which totaled 658 by year's end. Even though the department assigned an extra squad to South Bureau, homicide caseloads remained 40% higher than the average in the Valley and West L.A.

This year, homicides have fallen by nearly a fifth from 2002. But as of last week, caseloads for South Bureau homicide detectives were 50% higher than the average for West L.A. and Valley detectives; caseloads for Central detectives were 80% higher.

The legacy of LAPD detective deployment "sends the wrong message," said Linda Dahlberg, a violence-prevention expert at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "It sends a message that ... some victims matter, and some victims don't."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

How Caseloads Are Calculated

The Times calculated detective caseloads using homicide data from the Los Angeles Police Department. Detective supervisors in all 18 divisions were asked to calculate deployment using employee schedules from the last 12 years. The Times also interviewed longtime detectives and reviewed homicide logbooks, employee rosters and internal LAPD documents.

The analysis is based on the number of homicide detectives measured against the number of killings in each bureau. The analysis did not account for the borrowing of detectives from other specialties to work on homicides, an occasional practice citywide.

Nor did the analysis include the 3% of all homicides during this 12-year period that were handled by the LAPD's Robbery-Homicide Division. Robbery-Homicide, which handles high-profile cases from all bureaus, absorbed a slightly greater proportional share of Valley and West cases in these years than South and Central cases.

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To read previous articles from this series, go to latimes.com/mortalwounds.

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