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Violent Crime in L.A. Down 27% This Year

Times Staff Writer

Violent crime in Los Angeles is down 27% so far this year, a fact Mayor James K. Hahn is using as a major selling point in the final month of his tough reelection campaign.

But the decline, though far larger than those recorded in New York, Chicago and several other major cities, is more complex than it might seem.

The record rain that pounded the region in January and February may offer part of the answer. Police and criminologists have long said that bad weather dampens crime, and Los Angeles Police Department statistics indicate this was true during the rainy days.

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But even after the rain stopped at the end of February, crime did not pick up.

As of April 9, rapes were down 35% compared with the same period last year, while homicides dropped 7% and property crimes 16%.

The biggest declines have occurred in more affluent parts of the city. The Hollywood Division has not recorded a single homicide so far this year. Divisions on the Westside have seen seven homicides so far this year, compared with 24 during the same period last year.

The only major uptick: seven more homicides in South Los Angeles than during the same period last year, a 12% increase. In response, the LAPD has moved more officers into the area, said Assistant Chief George Gascon. Other types of violent crime, he noted, are down in South L.A.

Experts who study crime trends, as well as some in the LAPD, say it’s far too early to declare success this year.

Winter and spring often are relatively slow periods for crime. The big test will come in summer, when hot weather tends to bring more people onto the street -- along with more crime.

“With high gas prices and weary people, it’s going to be tough,” said Det. Jeff Godown, who runs the LAPD’s Compstat crime-tracking operation. “The next 90 to 120 days will be the deciding factor.”

What drives crime up or down has long been a matter of debate. Many criminologists say police are only one factor among many, such as the economy and the weather. Those who study crime caution against short-term statistics, saying long-term trends provide a better picture.

Ellen Cohn, an associate professor of criminology at Florida International University, said studies have shown that cold and rainy weather tends to reduce crime and that hot and humid weather sometimes increases it. A Harvard University study released in January examined crime statistics and weather conditions in cities across the country. It found that crime declined during heavy rain but tended to pick up again afterward.

Cohn said that just because crime has decreased since the rain ended does not mean it won’t rebound in the future.

Los Angeles has had its second-wettest rainy season on record this year, with much of the rain falling in January and February. The area has experienced generally dry weather since then.

LAPD statistics show that violent crime was running 23.4% below last year on Feb. 19, during a major storm. Now it is running 27% below last year.

Police Chief William J. Bratton insisted the crime drop is not just about bad weather.

“It’s not the rain that’s to credit for this crime reduction,” he said. “Too much is being made of the weather.”

Hahn, who is trailing City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa in the latest Times Poll, has used his appointment of Bratton as police chief 2 1/2 years ago as a central theme of his reelection campaign. During Bratton’s first two years, violent crime dropped 18%, homicides declined by a fifth and arrests climbed by nearly a quarter.

Hahn recounted the crime drop last week during a demonstration of LAPD pursuit techniques, with 13 television news cameras looking on.

“What was that reduction of violent crime, chief?” Hahn asked Bratton.

Bratton rattled off the statistics.

“That’s the kind of message I think the people are going to respond to,” Hahn said.

Bratton said he attributes the drop to what he describes as the LAPD’s “surgical approach” to policing. The department uses computers to analyze crime patterns and identify areas where officers should focus their efforts. Bratton said the goal is to target the small number of criminals who commit far more than their share of offenses.

“We don’t pursue gangs in general. We target specific shot callers who set crimes in motion,” Gascon said. Records show that gang arrests are up 17% in the first three months of the year.

The decreases so far this year are fairly consistent throughout the city, with the decline in violent crime varying from 12% in the Northeast Division to 44% in the West Los Angeles Division. (Violent crimes include homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault.)

In the San Fernando Valley, violent crime is down 35% so far this year. There were 222 fewer victims of violent crime in North Hollywood. And the Van Nuys Division saw its number of homicides drop from 12 to two.

Crime has dropped in other major cities, but not by as much as in Los Angeles. “Serious crime,” a combined measure of violent crime and property crime, is down 6.8% in New York, for example, compared with 19% in Los Angeles.

If that 19% decrease holds up, it would be nearly double Bratton’s stated goal for 2005 of a 10% reduction in serious crime.


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