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Homicide rate in L.A. takes dip

Times Staff Writer

After a nearly 40% increase in homicides during the first 2 1/2 months of this year, the rate of slayings in the city of Los Angeles has dropped dramatically in recent weeks to a level that is only slightly above last year’s homicide rate.

There were 102 homicides as of Thursday, compared with 95 for the same period in 2007, according to Los Angeles Police Department statistics.

LAPD officials Thursday attributed the recent decline largely to extra patrol officers assigned to problem areas across the city. Police activity was so heavy in some areas that an undercover detective was stopped twice and questioned by uniformed officers.

“I fully expect as the weeks and months go on that we will continue our downward trend in homicides,” Chief William J. Bratton said.

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For nearly five years, Bratton has presided over a precipitous decline in the number of homicides. Last year, the homicide rate was the lowest in four decades. Bratton is quick to note that the 394 killings last year, while tragic, pale in comparison to the more than 600 homicides in 2002, before his first full year in office.

But a spate of slayings earlier this year has confounded and concerned top police officials. And, because many of the deaths captured the public’s attention, police say they are battling a perception among residents that violence on the streets is out of control.

Among those high-profile cases: the slaying of high school football star Jamiel Shaw Jr.; the gunning down of a 13-year-old Echo Park boy on his way to gather lemons; and a dramatic gun battle between gang members and police in Glassell Park.

Despite the surge in killings, violent crime overall is down 3% throughout the city, and property crimes have declined 7%, police said.

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In the first three months of 2008 the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has fared even better. Homicides are down 6%, from 71 to 67, and major crimes are down 5% compared with the same period last year.

On Thursday, LAPD officials and detectives gathered for a routine review of homicides in the city and invited The Times to sit in. At the meeting, LAPD bosses examined crime locations and trends, using computer-generated maps projected onto a large screen. Detectives said the additional police presence in Northeast Los Angeles -- where 13 people have been killed this year -- resulted in a significant drop in criminal activity.

To illustrate the point, one computer map showed that only a single crime had occurred in one of the area’s most violent neighborhoods. With the click of the computer mouse, the next screen showed arrests: It was filled with so many dots representing detained suspects that some streets were barely visible.

“It is a funny thing what an extra 50 officers will do for you,” Deputy Chief Charlie Beck told Northeast Division officers after questioning them about the crime trends. “You have turned a corner.”

Although the overall number of killings seems to be slightly higher than 2007 levels, some areas of the city are experiencing sharp increases.

In the South Bureau, which covers South Los Angeles, there have been 37 homicides, up 23%, Cmdr. Andrew Smith said. In the Southeast Division, which includes Watts and many of the city’s large housing projects, there have been 14 homicides, up 75% over last year. In the Rampart Division, which includes Westlake, MacArthur Park and Pico-Union, there have been five killings so far this year, compared with two in 2007, a 150% increase.

Not everyone shared Bratton’s optimism that the department would be successful in reducing the number of homicides this year.

Najee Ali, a community activist and founder of Project Islamic Hope, said he doesn’t think the statistics “accurately reflect” what’s going on in South Los Angeles. “People are afraid,” he said. “The fact is the level of violence in South L.A. is unacceptable and wouldn’t be allowed in any other part of the city.”

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Malcolm Klein, a USC professor emeritus of sociology and an expert on gangs and crime, said crime statistics go in cycles, and no one should read too much into short snapshots. “They go up, and they go down,” he said. “These statistics are not very stable.”

Klein said that what leads to short-term changes in crime patterns is a matter of debate. “It is almost impossible to say what causes it. There are multiple causes, with one cause leading at one time and another cause at another time,” he said.

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richard.winton@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Crime statistics

Here are crime numbers so far this year:

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Los Angeles Police Department

HOMICIDES

2008: 102

2007: 95

SERIOUS CRIMES

2008: 29,033

2007: 31,373

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department

HOMICIDES

2008: 67

2007: 71

SERIOUS CRIMES

2008: 21,079

2007: 22,282

(LAPD homicide numbers are through April 3. LAPD major crimes are through March 29. Sheriff’s homicides and major crimes are through March 31.)

Source: Times reporting


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