L.A. gang killings drop 32%
Nearly six months into the LAPD’s crackdown on gang violence, the number of gang-related homicides in Los Angeles dropped 32%, mirroring an overall decline in violent crime across the city, according to statistics released Thursday.
The Los Angeles Police Department recorded 79 gang-related killings as of Saturday night, compared with 117 during the same period last year.
Chief William J. Bratton said the plunge in gang killings has helped fuel a 24% drop in overall homicides.
“That’s 48 fewer murder victims, 48 fewer families victimized and 48 fewer young men going to jail for 20 to 25 years for that crime,” Bratton said. “We are actually saving two lives -- the victim, and hopefully, keeping another young person from committing a murder.”
The crackdown was a response to a 15% increase in gang-related crimes in 2006 as general crime continued to decline citywide. In response, the LAPD shifted more police officers into neighborhoods with large concentrations of gang members to target 11 gangs that police officials considered to be the worst.
The FBI and Los Angeles city attorney’s office have also targeted several gangs that have been accused of racially motivated violence.
“That is a substantial decline in gang homicides if their gang-related definition has remained the same,” said Malcolm Klein, a professor emeritus of sociology at USC who has studied gangs for several decades. Klein said that generally the LAPD has been fairly good at identifying gangs tied to crime but that it remains a subjective task.
He says he is not surprised that Bratton credited LAPD officers for the decline but he and others cautioned against attributing such a change to law enforcement actions.
To officers on the streets, there is no easy answer for the decline. Some officers said that although they believe recent police efforts have made a difference, other factors, such as demographic changes, improved trauma care for assault victims and longer prison sentences, are also affecting crime statistics such as homicide.
Three-strikes laws, for example, have thinned the ranks of some gangs in the LAPD’s 77th Division, Det. John Radtke said. “If I sit down and go through the gang list, it’s amazing how many names are in jail or dead.”
Officers working in the areas where crime has fallen most steeply said they were reluctant to even guess why violent crime has declined.
Veterans working the streets of South Los Angeles learn to never make predictions, said Det. Richard Arsiniega of the Newton Division homicide squad. “Because tomorrow,” he said, snapping his fingers, “it could change.”
Police in high-crime areas such as Newton Division and the neighboring 77th Street Division are accustomed to sharp, inexplicable spikes in crime. “We go 11 weeks without a homicide, and then we’ll have three in three days,” Arsiniega said.
Newton, which is down in homicides this year, has seen a sudden spurt of three killings over the last week.
Two of the recent victims were women, including 31-year-old Karina Michel, who was killed in front of her two children Tuesday.
Some areas of the most intense new police focus, however, have also seen the greatest decline in crime statistics this year. Southeast Division, for example, had 23 homicides at this time last year. This year, there have been 14.
Southeast Division Lt. Glenn Krejci cites an accumulation of new tactics over several years in that division, covering Watts, which is the poorest of all the precincts in the city and includes among its public housing projects three large ones: Nickerson Gardens, Jordan Downs and Imperial Courts.
Krejci said Southeast Division’s experience shows that crime responds when police simply throw a lot at it.
For example, Southeast in recent years has added cameras in the housing projects that are monitored by officers, gang injunctions on such projects-based gangs as the Bounty Hunters and the Grape Street Crips, a prosecution program called CLEAR, and money from the Los Angeles Housing Authority granting extra overtime for patrols in the projects, he said.
So far in 2007, homicides in South Los Angeles, traditionally the most violent part of the city, are down from 70 to 58.
Gang-related killings in South Los Angeles are down 23% from 47 to 36, Bratton said.
The South Los Angeles homicide unit has cleared 42 killings or 84% of its caseload, Bratton said.
The clearance for all South Los Angeles homicides has increased from 48% to 74% this year, officials said.
“That is an incredible number. There aren’t many departments in the country who have numbers like that,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said as he chatted with detectives in a squad room.
Citywide, the clearance rate has jumped from 63% to 75% so far this year. Additionally, Bratton and Villaraigosa reminded the public of rewards offered in hopes of solving three separate shooting deaths in South Los Angeles, where homicides were down by 17% in the first part of the year.
Det. Matt Mahoney of South Bureau homicide said good police work is making a difference.
“We are actually making some good arrests. We are hitting prime targets,” he said. Gang units “are on top of things. Patrol is on top of things.... I honestly believe it is what we are doing,” he said.
But police caution that the summer months have barely begun, and homicides typically surge in August, the result of a combination of factors, such as people being outside at night and so-called gang birthdays falling in months whose numbers correspond with streets in South Los Angeles -- streets in the 70s, correspond to July, for example. And the long-term trend is hard to gauge.
“It will be interesting to see where it is going to go in 10 years. I don’t think anyone can predict it,” Radtke said.