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Gang-related killings in L.A. plunge 27%

Times Staff Writers

Gang-related killings in Los Angeles declined dramatically in 2007 as the Los Angeles Police Department and other agencies waged an intensive campaign against some of the city’s most violent street toughs, officials announced Thursday.

The dip in gang homicides was part of an overall reduction in serious crime in the city.

The LAPD recorded 216 gang-related deaths in 2007. Although that figure accounted for more than half of all homicides citywide, it was a 27% drop from the year before.

The decline was most pronounced in the Valley: Twenty-nine gang-related killings in 2007 represented a 40% drop from the number recorded in 2006.

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Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William J. Bratton credited a gang counteroffensive launched in early 2007 after the LAPD recorded an increase in gang crime the year before.

Last February, officials took the unusual -- and controversial -- step of identifying what they called the city’s 11 most dangerous gangs and targeted them with teams of police, federal agents, probation officers and prosecutors.

Then in April, Villaraigosa announced that the LAPD and city would step up policing and intervention programs in eight “gang reduction zones” in South L.A., on the Eastside and in the northeast Valley and other areas hit by gang violence.

“One year ago, Chief Bratton and I pledged to stop the bleeding, to stop the rise in gang violence, and we did,” Villaraigosa said at a North Hills news conference, where he and Bratton were flanked by about two dozen officials, including City Council members, U.S. Atty. Thomas O’Brien and Salvador Hernandez, the FBI’s assistant director in charge of the Los Angeles division.

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But criminologists and gang experts cautioned against declaring victory.

Civil rights attorney Connie Rice applauded the decline but said any celebration should be tempered by what she called a continued epidemic of gang violence stretching through whole swaths of the city.

“We have to break the norm of gang culture in hot zones. The ranks keep refilling,” said Rice, director of the Advancement Project, which called on the city last year to invest $1 billion in a comprehensive mix of prevention programs. “The mistake is looking through the lens of crime fighting. You cannot arrest your way out of this problem.”

Others cautioned against relying too heavily on one year of data, saying gang violence ebbs and flows in cycles.

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“Gangs respond to suppression efforts, no doubt about it. But does that solve the problem? Absolutely not,” said Wes McBride, executive director of the California Gang Investigators Assn. “Without bringing in social programs behind that, you’ll just shift the problem elsewhere or hold it off for a few months.”

Villaraigosa and Bratton emphasized the need for gang intervention and education programs but said those efforts can be successful only when combined with a strong police presence.

Along with the drop in homicides, overall gang-related crimes were down nearly 4%.

When asked what factors had most contributed to the gang homicide downturn, Bratton highlighted the department’s improved coordination with other agencies and an increase in the number of gang officers and the overall ranks of the LAPD.

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Bratton deployed an additional 50 officers to the Valley in 2007 and added 75 gang officers department-wide. The bureau that serves South Los Angeles has 72 investigators devoted to gang-related homicides, a significant increase over recent years, officials said.

“Every success we’ve talked about here today is a direct response to my having the ability to put cops on the dots,” Bratton said at the news conference, referring to his strategy of deploying officers to crime hot spots.

The statistics released Thursday showed that some of most significant decreases in gang-related homicides occurred in many of the city’s most dangerous communities.

The Southeast Division, for example, which serves Watts and other parts of South Los Angeles, recorded 27 such killings in 2007, compared with 55 the year before. In the nearby 77th Street Division, such homicides dropped from 35 to 26. In Boyle Heights, gang-related homicides dropped from 23 in 2006 to 15 last year.

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Many other areas had small numbers of gang-related homicides to begin with but still witnessed declines. In the West Los Angeles Division, for example, the figure dropped from three to one.

Three of the LAPD’s 19 divisions saw an increase in gang-related homicides. Hollywood went from seven in 2006 to 10 last year; the Devonshire Division in the northwest Valley rose from two to four. And the Newton Division, serving parts of South L.A. east of USC, rose from 30 to 35.

One noted criminologist said the overall declines reflected a decade-long drop in serious violent crime in Los Angeles that began well before Villaraigosa and Bratton assumed their current posts.

Cheryl Maxson, an associate professor of criminology, law and society at UC Irvine, said the city should take advantage of the homicide fall-off to tackle the social, cultural and economic forces behind gang violence.

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“We need to put in place prevention and intervention programs so we can hopefully avoid the boomerang to the high violence levels we saw in the 1990s,” Maxson said.

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duke.helfand@latimes.com

joel.rubin@latimes.com

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