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L.A. crime decreases for 5th year

Times Staff Writers

Crime in Los Angeles dropped for the fifth consecutive year in 2006, bucking trends both for the nation and in other regions of Southern California, where violent offenses are increasing.

Crime numbers reviewed Tuesday show that as of late December, total crime across Los Angeles was down about 8%, with major drops in burglaries, car thefts, rapes and assaults.

Homicides dropped about 4%, from 487 in 2005 to 464 as of Dec. 23 this year, according to Los Angeles Police Department statistics. The only crime to rise in 2006 was robbery, up 6% to 13,943 incidents.

The crime numbers boost the prestige of Police Chief William J. Bratton at a time when he is seeking a second five-year term and writing a book about how other cities can combat crime.

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“You can’t be lucky seven times in a row. If I was, I’d be making a living hanging out at the blackjack table,” the chief said Tuesday, noting that crime dropped not only during his tenure as police chief in Los Angeles but also when he was chief in Boston and New York.

Bratton has long sparred with some criminologists, who question how much credit the LAPD -- or any other police agency -- can really take for crime declines. They believe falling crime is caused by myriad factors, including the economy, demographics and urban gentrification.

But on Tuesday, even some skeptics were tipping their hats to the chief, saying five straight years of decline clearly shows the LAPD is doing something right.

“Bratton has focused on gangs, guns, and drugs,” said University of Chicago law professor Bernard E. Harcourt, who was co-author last year of a paper dealing with Bratton’s record in New York that provoked the chief’s ire. “And I think we are seeing that it has paid off. Larger national trends affecting major U.S. cities are obviously contributing to the declines, but Bratton’s focus ... has proven successful.”

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James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University in Boston, agreed, adding: “There is no external factor that would explain such a large decline. It has to do with crime prevention and crime control at the local level.”

Fox pointed to a recent FBI report showing violent crime up 4% nationwide in the first six months of 2006. The study found significant per capita increases in violent crime in several Southern California cities with populations of more than 100,000, including Lancaster, Orange, Inglewood, Santa Clarita, Ontario and Moreno Valley.

For the full year, Orange County’s two largest cities, Anaheim and Santa Ana, recorded increases in violent crime, officials said Tuesday.

Santa Ana began the year boasting that police had made strides against gang violence, recording 13 gang homicides for 2005, the lowest in more than a decade. But the number of gang homicides for 2006 reached 17 last week with the fatal shooting of two 14-year-old boys.

The killings, coupled with an increase in robberies this year, have city leaders worried.

“I fear that we are slowly but surely going back to the 1990s, when it was really bad,” said Santa Ana City Councilwoman Michelle Martinez, who helped organize a town hall meeting Thursday on crime that attracted more than 100 residents.

Mary Bloom Ramos, a 55-year-old woman who works a block from last week’s shooting, said that one nearby friend has installed quarter-inch steel plates in his home to block bullets. Another friend said she fell to the floor three times one recent night as shots rang out in the neighborhood.

Los Angeles continued to see significant gang violence in 2006, although LAPD records showed that overall crime declined across the city. There were some notable geographic differences.

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In some gentrifying areas, violent crime dropped significantly, down nearly 7% in the Hollywood Division, nearly 8% in Rampart Division and nearly 5% in the Wilshire Division.

But in South Los Angeles, the rough Newton Division saw a 4% increase in violent crime, and the Hollenbeck Division in Boyle Heights recorded a 5% increase.

Robberies surged 33% in the West Valley Division, from 446 through Dec. 23, 2005, to 595 a year later.

The Valley was the scene of dozens of takeover robberies of businesses believed to have been carried out by a gang of masked men who cleaned out cash registers and took cash and jewelry of customers.

At Cafe Trottier, a sandwich and coffee shop in a strip mall at the corner of Winnetka Avenue and Sherman Way, manager Patricia Roberts said there have been three robberies of neighboring stores in recent months, including two at the same nearby fast-food restaurant and another at a chain drug store.

“There’s a lot of fear, especially knowing there have been attempts,” she said in a recent interview. “We are all concerned it will be our turn.”

Despite the robberies, however, LAPD officials noted that overall crime numbers have not looked so rosy in some time.

The last time LAPD statistics showed the current tally of 123,700 Part I crimes (which include violent crimes, burglaries and car thefts) was in the early 1960s. On a per capita basis, the number of reported serious crimes per 10,000 people was on the level not seen since the early 1950s, according to department figures.

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Bratton was appointed LAPD chief in late 2002 and set out to remake a department plagued by charges of officer misconduct steaming from the Rodney G. King beating and Rampart Division corruption scandal.

Bratton pushed to rethink the way the department tackled crime, using the CompStat computer mapping system to help pinpoint crime trends and identify specific areas that require more policing. He moved more officers into areas with severe gang problems. At the same time, he told officers to focus on smaller crimes like vandalism that he believe might eventually lead to larger ones.

Bratton had used many of these strategies when he was police commissioner in New York in the early 1990s and won wide praise for decreases in crime there.

But some academics have questioned how big a role police tactics play in crime drops.

Harcourt, the law professor, was co-author of an article saying that crime in New York would have fallen even without Bratton’s techniques because he believes that crime that goes up will naturally go back down.

Bratton shot back, co-writing a National Review article taking to task ivory tower academics,” who have “never sat in a patrol car, walked or bicycled a beat, lived in or visited regularly troubled violent neighborhoods.”

On Tuesday, Bratton credited his police officers with reducing crime in Los Angeles but said the city needs more of them.

“Cops count,” Bratton said. “The issue in Los Angeles is that there haven’t been enough of them.”

Although final numbers for the communities patrolled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department haven’t been released, officials said they expected declines in both violent crime and property crime from 2005. A report studying crime through October found a 10% drop in homicides and 4% decline in assaults but a 7% rise in robberies in county territory.

The long-troubled city of San Bernardino saw significant improvements over last year, which officials attributed to a major crackdown focusing on the area’s high-crime neighborhoods.

There have been 46 homicides this year in San Bernardino -- including a shooting death Tuesday -- compared with 55 in 2005.

Riverside County Sheriff Bob Doyle said he expected crime to remain relatively flat this year, despite an influx of residents in the fast-growing region. The department is hiring 480 deputies in hopes of maintaining a ratio of 1.2 deputies per 1,000 people.

Anaheim officials said they have been working to attack a rise in violent crime there. Police Chief John Welter said the department is moving closer to stemming the increase by cracking down on a group of street gangs believed responsible for many of the problems.

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andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

Times staff writers Maeve Reston and Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Major crime trends

Some major crimes

*--* 2003 2004 2005 2006* Homicide 515 518 487 464 Rape 1,177 1,109 928 887 Robbery 16,486 14,024 13,453 13,943 Burglary 24,871 22,811 21,543 19,493

*--*

*Through Dec. 23

Source: LAPD


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