Los Angeles Police Department officials, alarmed by the continued rise in the homicide rate this year, sought Tuesday to debunk the notion that racial animosity has been at the heart of many of the killings.
A detailed analysis of each of the homicides this year leaves little doubt that race is not the prime factor and that “the most likely suspect is one that looks just like their victim,” Deputy Chief Charlie Beck said in a presentation to the department’s civilian Police Commission.
By Monday, 93 people had been killed in Los Angeles this year, compared with 69 during the same period last year -- a nearly 35% increase. As the weeks pass, the bloodshed in 2008 grows worse than the previous year. Two weeks ago, for example, the increase in the homicide rate over last year stood at 27%. The rise is also outpacing those in New York City and Chicago -- cities that have seen significant, but less dramatic, increases this year, according to Det. Jeff Godown, who oversees the LAPD’s extensive effort to analyze crime statistics.
In addressing the commission, however, Beck and Godown hammered on a message that top police officials have been sounding for weeks: that neither race nor any other single factor can explain the increase in homicides.
In fact, they said, department statistics for this year found that in cases in which police have information about the suspect, the vast majority of alleged assailants in the killings of Latinos were other Latinos and the vast majority in killings of blacks were other blacks.
Of 57 Latinos killed this year, 87% are believed to have been struck down by other Latinos, the LAPD data show. (Those statistics do not include several cases in which the race of the suspect is unknown and one case in which the assailant is white.)
Nearly two-thirds of black homicide victims, meanwhile, are suspected to have been killed by other blacks. In about one of every three cases, the killer is thought to be Latino -- up from 14% over all of 2007. But even in instances in which a Latino is believed to have killed a black person or vice versa this year, police insist that there is no evidence that points to race being the primary factor in the homicide.
Police Chief William J. Bratton is counting on those raw numbers to deflate what several commissioners and police officials called the “rumors” and “myth” of violent racial tensions between blacks and Latinos. True or not, that sentiment has gained credence in recent weeks with several high-profile slayings and injuries in which suspected Latino gang members killed blacks. In one case, a 6-year-old black boy was shot in the head when two men flashed gang signs and opened fire on the SUV the boy was riding in. Days earlier, 17-year-old football standout Jamiel Shaw Jr. was gunned down on the sidewalk near his home, allegedly by a member of the notorious 18th Street gang. The attacker shot Shaw after demanding to know if the teenager belonged to a gang.
The question of race-related homicides has been a prickly one for Bratton. At a recent news conference about several high-profile slayings, he angrily rebuked a television news reporter for suggesting that the crimes spoke to racial tensions.
“He’s full of [expletive],” Bratton said of the reporter.
Black civic leaders, although agreeing that there is no evidence to support the notion of a full-scale, widespread race-driven battle between Latinos and blacks, cautioned Bratton and others not to downplay the idea that race has played a role in some of the killings.
“Anyone who is saying that race is not a factor at all is not completely in touch with the feelings of people on the streets,” said John Hope Bryant, chairman of Operation HOPE. Referring to Shaw, Bryant said police would be “hard pressed to tell people on the streets that it is not about race . . . when two Hispanics approach you with a clear energy that is about race and shoot you dead.”
Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a political analyst who heads the Urban Policy Roundtable, echoed Bryant.
“They do not want to inflame tensions; I understand that,” he said. “But . . . they also must not disarm a community by not fully coming to grips with the possibility” that race is a factor in some cases.
Despite the new numbers from the LAPD, authorities have said in the past that race-based violence has been a problem in some L.A. neighborhoods. Federal prosecutors last year charged members of a Latino gang with a violent campaign to drive blacks out of the unincorporated Florence-Firestone neighborhood, which allegedly resulted in 20 homicides over several years.
In the Harbor Gateway district of L.A., police launched a crackdown last year on another Latino gang accused of targeting blacks, including 14-year-old Cheryl Green, whose death became a rallying point. In 2006, members of the Avenues, a Latino gang, were convicted in federal court for a series of assaults and killings in the early 1990s targeting blacks in Highland Park.
But both police and some academics who have studied L.A. homicide numbers have long insisted that interracial violence is still relatively rare.
Apart from dissecting each homicide in search of common denominators, Bratton and his deputies have been at a loss on how to counter the rise in killings this year. In many ways, the homicide rate appears to be an anomaly, because other violent crimes, and crime overall, are down in the city.
With the so-called precursor crimes -- such as assault with a deadly weapon and shootings -- down, Bratton and Beck said they still expected homicides to taper off as the year goes on. And the city is struggling with the perception of widespread violence in part because there was a record low number of killings last year. Compared with the homicide rate for the same period of 2006, this year’s figures are up only 7%.
Regardless, it has been a frustrating year, police said. “If I could find a pattern, if I could find something that I could immediately impact . . . I would,” Beck said. “But the truth is that so far there is not a lot of connectivity” between the killings.
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Victims and suspects
In homicides this year for which the LAPD has information about the suspect, the vast majority of Latinos and blacks were killed by alleged assailants from their own racial/ethnic group.
Homicide cases by race/ethnicity of suspected killers
Latino suspects: 87%
Black suspects: 13%
Black suspects: 65%
Latino suspects: 35%
Note: Through March 16. The few cases in which a suspect is of a racial/ethnic group other than black or Latino, or no description of a suspect is available, are not included in these statistics.