Violent crime climbs in Bay Area

Times Staff Writers

In a grim twist on the longtime rivalry between Northern and Southern California, a group of Bay Area cities has won the disturbing distinction of seeing violent crime rise as it continues to plummet in Los Angeles.

While the incidence of homicide, rape, robbery and aggravated assault dropped in Southern California’s biggest city from 2005 to 2006, Oakland, San Francisco and Richmond, in particular, struggled with rising rates of serious felonies. Other cities in Northern California, including Fremont, Novato and San Rafael, also recorded increases.

Oakland saw the number of homicides spike 57% in 2006 from the year before, one of the biggest jumps in a major U.S. city. One hundred forty-eight people were killed there last year; 2007 is shaping up to be a bit less bloody.


Father Jayson Landeza is pastor of St. Columba Catholic Church and a chaplain with the Oakland Police Department. For the last four years, he has planted a cross in the parish rose garden for each Oakland homicide victim.

At least he’s tried.

“We’ve run out of crosses,” he said recently. More are on order.

Criminologists warn that making broad generalizations about California crime trends oversimplifies a complicated and dynamic state. They also note that fingering the culprit behind any change in regional criminal activity is difficult.

But they point to several factors that separate Los Angeles from its northern counterparts.

For one, Oakland, the state’s eighth-largest city, is home to a large population of parolees, who account for approximately 50% of the crimes committed there.

Among others: The northern cities have seen steep increases in gang violence. And there are significant differences between north and south in police strategy, particularly in the use of CompStat, a computer crime-tracking program favored by L.A. Police Chief William J. Bratton.

“When you ask what is the current state of criminal activity, [Bratton] can pull out his BlackBerry and cite the crime rate within the last week,” state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown said last month, during the swearing-in ceremony for Bratton’s second term.

“There are very few police chiefs in the United States who can do that,” Brown said. “And for that reason, Los Angeles has experienced a dramatic reduction in crime that unfortunately contrasts with Oakland and San Francisco and several other cities.”

Crime in L.A. dropped 4.1% in 2006, and the city is on track to record fewer than 400 homicides in 2007, a 30-year low. Violent crime in Orange County dropped 2.5% last year.

Northern California is more in line with state and national trends; violent crime rose about 2% across California last year and 1.9% across the country as a whole.

Oakland had the highest rate of violent crime of any large city in California last year: -- 190.5 incidents for every 10,000 people, according to a Times analysis of recently released FBI data. That’s nearly 2 1/2 times the rate in Los Angeles.

There were 1,066 more rapes, robberies, murders and aggravated assaults in Oakland last year than in San Francisco, its glitzy neighbor across the bay, which has nearly twice the population. Oakland’s violent crime rate jumped 34.1% between 2005 and 2006 and 38% between 2003 and 2006.

In one hopeful sign, law enforcement officials targeting a violent heroin ring raided several gang strongholds nearly three weeks ago, arresting 30 suspects -- mostly in Oakland -- and confiscating drugs, guns and cash.

“Last year alone, 38% of the homicides were gang-related violence,” said Dave Kozicki, Oakland’s deputy police chief, announcing the culmination of the two-year sting. “The groups involved today were involved in a significant portion of that.”

Oakland’s violence has renewed calls for more police on the streets and caused a political headache for Mayor Ron Dellums, who has favored social explanations and fixes for crime problems.

“This is not just a question about police,” Dellums said at a town hall meeting last month. “We have closed our eyes to the injustices and inequities, and now we are reaping the wild winds of that disregard for a whole range of people.”

But at that same meeting, Dellums acknowledged the difficulty his city has had in attracting and keeping qualified police officers. Voters passed Measure Y three years ago to generate money for violence prevention and police recruitment; the measure also set the Police Department size at 803 sworn personnel.

Right now, however, there are only about 730 officers. Although 119 graduated from the Police Academy last year, Dellums said, 60 retired, 40 left for other law enforcement agencies and 10 were fired. The net result: nine new officers.

Measure Y also funds services for the large number of parolees who are released to Oakland every year. The city estimates that 3,000 are returned to the area annually. In fact, Alameda County, site of Oakland, received nearly 50% more new parolees per capita than Los Angeles County in 2005, the most recent year for which state government statistics are available.

“You certainly see folks who are either on probation or coming out of prison on parole at great risk of committing violent crimes or being victims of violent crime,” said Lenore Anderson, the city’s new public safety director.

Although San Francisco has dramatically less crime per capita than its neighbor to the east, the rate of violent crime also rose there, jumping 9.6% between 2005 and 2006, 18% between 2003 and 2006, according to the Times analysis.

Homicides dropped in 2006. But there have been 90 in San Francisco so far this year, putting the city on track to have its highest homicide count in 14 years.

This causes crime experts to scratch their heads in wonder, because San Francisco also boasts a healthy economy, leading to local headlines like the recent “SF Boom Boosts Mayor.”

Richard Rosenfeld is a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and was involved in an in-depth examination of 2006 FBI crime statistics called the Improving Crime Data Project.

San Francisco, he said, has “a higher homicide rate than would be expected, based on its level of socioeconomic disadvantage compared with other cities. We don’t find the same” contradiction in Los Angeles with regard to wealth and crime.

Rosenfeld can’t explain the oddity, nor can local officials. “Nobody knows” why murder is on the rise, said Joseph Marshall, vice president of the San Francisco Police Commission. Although Marshall does not believe there is a firm link between economics and violence, he does note that most of his city’s homicides are in poor, predominantly minority neighborhoods.

“Guns are available, and people believe the way you should settle things is with violence, period,” said Marshall, who also heads up an anti-violence community organization. “L.A. [crime] has dropped because I think they made a concerted effort to do something about gang homicides.”

Then there’s Richmond, a poor East Bay city with a longtime, nagging violent crime problem.

In 2006, Richmond had the highest homicide rate of any large city in California -- 40.7 per 100,000 -- and activists regularly erect tent cities as a public way to protest the rising violence.

City officials brought in a new police chief 18 months ago. Although his tenure has been controversial and the city desperately needs more law enforcement officers, violent crime has dropped so far this year.

Although many major Bay Area police departments are understaffed and struggling to recruit and retain officers, the Los Angeles Police Department is beginning to grow.

When Bratton joined the department in 2002, he said in a recent interview, LAPD had 9,300 officers. Today, there are 9,545, although the “increase is in the Police Academy,” he said.

Bratton said most of the city’s five-year decline in crime happened before the department’s growth spurt. He attributes it to improved morale and the use of CompStat, which allows the LAPD to deploy officers more strategically.

Los Angeles is on track to achieve a 19% drop in homicides this year, which would make the number comparable to 1970s levels, when the city had a million fewer people. In addition, violent crime is down throughout most of Los Angeles and Orange counties.

UC Irvine criminologist George Tita said no one knows for sure what is behind the continuing drop in Los Angeles crime, but he believes that credit goes at least in part to demographics. Criminals need cheaper housing too, and some crime may be migrating to more affordable suburbs and outlying small cities, he said.

Downtown Los Angeles has been one of the top beneficiaries of the city’s drop in violent crime. Four years ago, the skid row area suffered under what Midnight Mission spokesman Orlando Ward called an uptick in “causeless violence.”

“Youthful drug dealers would beat people down without reason,” said Ward, who spent 17 years on the streets hooked on crack cocaine. “You had social services providers screaming for help.”

Although the area’s problems are far from solved, crime in skid row was down 35% in the last year and murders there are rare, according to the LAPD.

Said Ward: “We are seeing that peace now.”


Times staff writer Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.