Los Angeles is on track to end the year with fewer than 400 homicides for the first time in nearly four decades -- a hopeful milestone for a city so long associated with gangs, drive-by shootings and sometimes random violence.
With 386 killings recorded as of Sunday, the city has experienced one-third the number of homicides it did in 1992. The last year with a comparably low figure was 1970, when Los Angeles had a million fewer residents, guns were far less prevalent and street gangs were a much smaller part of life in urban neighborhoods.
Experts and Los Angeles Police Department officials have offered a wide range of theories for the drop, including the gentrification of once-tough neighborhoods, improved emergency medical care and better policing.
George Beck and his son Charlie -- two generations of LAPD officers -- have seen the full arc of homicides’ rise and fall in Los Angeles. Much has changed over the last 37 years in the way police deal with the crime, they said.
George Beck, 83, was an LAPD inspector in 1970 and rose to the rank of deputy chief. Back then, police had little information about what was happening on the streets, and top officials rarely showed up at homicide scenes to lead investigations.
“He is dead. He isn’t going to get deader,” he said, describing the mind-set then. “There wasn’t the urgency you see now with all these detectives, crime scene people and the constant tracking of crime statistics.”
His son is now chief of the department’s South Bureau, which has long covered one of the most violent parts of the city. Homicides in the area have so far tumbled 25% in 2007. Charlie Beck, 54, has walked scores of blood-spattered homicide scenes this year.
“I don’t go there to deal with the homicide,” he said. “I go there to stop the next one.”
He fiddles with his Blackberry, which buzzes every few minutes, updating him on crime scenes. Data from each crime are plugged into a computer system that allows officials to look for patterns and study the department’s effectiveness.
Cops now call gang intervention workers, often former gang members, to work the scene at a homicide and help the officers prevent retaliatory gunfire.
So far this year, homicides in Los Angeles are down about 17%, compared with last year. The number of shooting victims is down by 14%. Overall violent crime -- including rape, robbery and assault -- is down 8%.
The trend extends to other parts of Los Angeles County. As of Dec. 1, the last date for which figures are available, the number of homicides had dropped about 17% in the more than 40 communities patrolled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and in cities such as Pasadena. The total for those communities was 303 as of Dec. 1, down from 369 during the same period last year. Long Beach has recorded 39 homicides this year, the lowest number since 1971.
“It’s not just a number. It means a whole lot,” said Betty Day, 68, who moved to Watts in the 1950s and has seen the homicide rate rise and fall. “You know, I’m very proud. People should feel good about it because it’s been a long time coming.”
The declining crime numbers come amid demographic shifts that are rapidly changing some neighborhoods. Venice, Echo Park and Hollywood, once significant crime areas, have become trendy addresses.
In the early 1990s, a gang war in Venice left nearly two dozen people dead and scores wounded. Gang violence has lessened considerably as the district has become far more expensive, with multimillion-dollar homes replacing fading bungalows.
The Figueroa Street corridor near Century Boulevard in the early 1990s was a drug and prostitution bazaar and the scene of numerous slayings. Now, bungalows in the area are being refurbished for first-time home buyers. Even downtown L.A.'s skid row has seen major changes with the addition of luxury lofts and fashionable eateries. Homicides there have fallen to seven so far this year, down from 12 last year.
Though the numbers this year reflect how far the area has come, police said the numbers in 1970 looked like a different kind of turning point.
LAPD Deputy Chief Mike Hillmann, who was in the department’s SWAT unit in the early 1970s, said that period was the start of a serious spike in violence.
“You can see that things were changing,” he said.
In the years after the Watts riots, violence in South L.A. rocketed upward, particularly in and around large housing projects. By 1972, more than 1,000 homicides were occurring annually in L.A. County. In 1973, four LAPD officers were killed in the line of duty during a grim seven-month period.
Over the next decade, the L.A. area was haunted by several serial killers, including the Hillside Strangler, the Night Stalker and the Southside Slayer, who was linked to the murders of more than a dozen women -- many in the Figueroa corridor.
Homicide numbers continued to rise into the early 1990s, as the crack cocaine epidemic grew and gangs became active across the city.
The worst year for homicides was 1992, when the city of L.A. recorded 1,092.
“Drugs really played a big part. ‘Easy money.’ But it wasn’t really easy money -- it was hard money,” said Maudine Clark, 69, a longtime Watts resident. “It did something to our young people, even to their minds. Some became dealers, some became users.”
In the late 1990s, her 18-year-old grandson was shot to death in a drive-by across the street from her home.
LAPD Officer Jerome Walker, 47, who grew up in Watts, said he saw the shifting crime trends firsthand. He remembers walking in the 1960s and early 1970s to the Boy Scouts office. “The Crips from that time . . . would shut the lights off and play their games and stuff like that,” Walker said. “But not really anything that violent.”
But by the mid-1970s, Walker said, he was regularly robbed on the way to middle school. A 14-year-old friend -- a member of the Bloods gang -- was killed by rivals. After nine years in the Navy, Walker joined the LAPD in 1993 and was assigned to Venice during the height of that area’s gang war.
“The Shoreline Crips over there were going at it with the Culver City Boyz. They got to the point where it was ridiculous,” he said. “You had parents getting shot.”
The crime rate began to decline in the mid-1990s, part of a nationwide drop in killings. Homicide totals rose slightly in 2000 and 2001, and have dropped every year since 2002, when LAPD Chief William J. Bratton took office.
Bratton instituted a variety of changes that he said helped reduce crimes, including focusing attention on repeat offenders and the CompStat computer system, which tracks crime hot spots and patterns. Authorities use the data to deploy resources and to assess the effectiveness of police managers.
At the same time, officials have focused more attention on seizing illegal handguns. Over the last two years, local, state and federal authorities have taken nearly 12,000 guns off the streets of Los Angeles.
The last decade also has yielded a significant decline in gang membership, according to LAPD statistics. In 1993, LAPD listed 61,000 gang members in the city, but by 2007 that number was about 41,000.
Boyle Heights resident Arturo Herrera, 70, said the situation in his neighborhood has improved since the early 1990s, when gang shootings were a common occurrence.
“I feel proud of my neighborhood,” he said. “A lot of people have this stereotyped image of Boyle Heights, that everyone has a dagger in their hand. But there’s good kids in the neighborhood, and good people.”
Still, Herrera said, he doesn’t feel comfortable walking in the neighborhood at night as he did many years ago. That unease could take several more years to erase, he said.
“I don’t know, it still seems kind of rough,” he said. “You still get those vibes, like something is still there, and you don’t know when something bad could strike, ‘cause everybody and their mother still has a gun. Even the small, 14-, 15-year-old kids have guns.”
Joseph Wambaugh, a former LAPD officer turned author, said the increased firepower on the streets of Los Angeles leaves the city vulnerable to sudden upticks in violence.
“We were looking for handguns back then,” Wambaugh said of his days on the beat in the early 1970s. “Now it’s AK-47s and other assault rifles. I feel our era was not quite as violent from a cop’s point of view.
“In the spur of the moment, someone can wipe out five people, and what does that do to your statistics?” he said.