Southern California law enforcement officials, who started the year fearing a surge in gang crime, have reached midyear with a major drop in homicides, according to crime statistics released Tuesday.
As of Tuesday, there have been 201 homicides this year in the city of Los Angeles, 56 fewer than at the same time in 2006, a 22% drop.
Communities patrolled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department also recorded double-digit declines. The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has recorded four murders so far this year, a 20% reduction.
The trend also extended to medium-sized cities. Burbank and Glendale, for example, haven’t recorded a single murder this year.
In San Bernardino, which for decades has struggled with high homicide numbers, police recorded 28 murders as of Tuesday, compared with 31 at this time last year, said Lt. Scott Paterson of the San Bernardino Police Department.
Throughout San Bernardino County, homicides were down roughly a quarter, from 42 to 32, as of last weekend, said Sgt. Rick Ells with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.
“You have ups and downs, but at this point it looks promising,” said Ells, whose agency patrols dozens of communities across one of America’s largest counties.
The drop in homicides is considered significant and somewhat curious, because it coincides with a much lower rate of decline for crime overall. In the city of Los Angeles with its 22% drop in homicides, for example, major crimes in general are down 3%.
“The most notable decrease has been in the number of homicides,” said Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton.
But there was much debate about why there have been so many fewer killings this year.
Some officers said the Los Angeles Police Department has 300 more officers on the streets now than it did last year, the first result of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s effort to add 1,000 officers.
“They have actually made good on their promises,” said LAPD homicide detective and novelist William Beall.
Orange County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Ryan Burris attributed the homicide drop there to a strong commitment of money by the 11 cities that contract with the agency for law enforcement services.
“They help us with resources to ensure that we can keep people safe,” Burris said.
Villaraigosa said a strategy of targeting 10 top gangs and their members, criticized by some, has paid off in fewer crimes and particularly fewer homicides.
“We targeted the worst gangs in Los Angeles, and gang homicides are down 29%,” the mayor told reporters Tuesday at a news conference.
He noted that through June 30, there were 41 fewer gang homicides than during the first half of 2006. “Why is that important? Because gang homicides are 56% of all homicides.”
The falling crime numbers in Los Angeles continue a five-year trend for Bratton, who was named last month to a second term as police chief largely on the strength of crime reductions during his tenure.
According to the LAPD, there were 1,000 fewer victims of violent crimes -- a 7% decrease -- in the city in the first half of 2007 than in the same period a year earlier.
South Bureau, with some of the most entrenched and violent gangs, saw a 30% drop in homicides as of this week, with 71 compared to 102 through this time last year. There were also 13% fewer shooting victims.
One of the biggest success stories was 77th Street Division, where homicides stood at 28 compared to 41 last year, a more than 30% reduction.
In Central Bureau, which includes skid row, homicides fell 13% while violent crime was down 8%.
There have been two reported homicides this year --compared to nine last year -- in Central Division, which includes downtown, skid row and Chinatown.
LAPD Cmdr. Andy Smith said he believes the homicides in downtown decreased in part because officers focused on getting weapons off the streets. The LAPD recently broke up the Fifth & Hill gang, a major drug dealing operation. By attacking drug dealing on skid row, Smith said, officers are moving guns off the streets.
Smith said that a stepped-up police presence, which is being used in skid row, often prevents the kind of disputes that can turn deadly.
In the Valley patrol divisions, homicides were down 16%, from 43 to 36. But shootings were up by more than two dozen and gang crime rose 15%. However, Villaraigosa defended that increase when compared to other parts of the city.
“Well, what about gang crime in the San Fernando Valley?” he asked rhetorically. “We are talking about infinitesimal numbers.”
West Bureau, traditionally the area of the city with the lowest crime, experienced a slight decline in homicides, from 25 to 22. Violent crime dropped 7% there in the first half of the year.
A few parts of Los Angeles saw increases in homicides.
In the Hollenbeck Division, which includes Boyle Heights, killings are up 17%, from 18 to 21.
Officials attribute the difference to gang feuds.
In Hollywood, homicides jumped from four last year to seven; in the Harbor Division, they rose from four to 10.
The numbers were more positive outside of the city of L.A.
In communities patrolled by the L.A. County sheriff and smaller city agencies, there were 170 homicides by July 1 compared with 193 in 2006, about a 12% drop, according to www.LAcountymurders.com, the sheriff’s homicide website.
George Tita, a criminologist at UC Irvine, said the continuing drop in crime was “a big mystery,” although there were “three plausible suspects.”
Tita cited changing demographics, particularly in high-crime areas; changing police tactics, including the use of CompStat, a computer crime-tracking program; and better rapport with the community, the May Day incident in MacArthur Park notwithstanding.
Tita said the data analysis has helped police better understand and concentrate on hot spots.
“They are learning how to use their data, not just look at it but analyze it and turn it into useful information,” Tita said.
Times staff writers David Haldane and Sara Lin contributed to this report.