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Los Angeles crime rates plunge despite weak economy

Crime in Los Angeles County dropped again in 2009 despite rising unemployment and the bad economy, continuing a slide that has pushed homicides to levels not seen since the 1960s.

Killings dropped about 17% in Los Angeles and by nearly a quarter in areas patrolled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Together, the agencies investigated about 500 killings through Sunday -- a sharp drop in bloodshed compared with the more than 1,500 in 1992, the year of the Los Angeles riots.

“It is a different world,” said Police Chief Charlie Beck, a 32-year veteran of the force. “There was a time when it was the opposite of today -- when it seemed there was no limit on the potential for things to get worse and worse. The whole outlook has shifted now.”

The number of property-related crimes, such as burglary and theft, also declined generally this year, including a surprisingly large drop in the number of stolen automobiles.

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The trend extended into other parts of Southern California and several major cities around the country. The Riverside County sheriff and San Diego County sheriff, as well as police departments in cities such as Anaheim and San Bernardino, reported declines. The San Diego Police Department recorded a 19% drop through November. New York City and Chicago each reported crime decreases of roughly 10%.

For the LAPD, the statistics marked the seventh consecutive year in which the rate of serious crimes has declined. Through Saturday, violent crimes, such as homicide, rape and robbery, fell about 10% compared with the same period last year, while burglary and other property crimes declined 8%, according to LAPD figures.

The Sheriff’s Department, which patrols dozens of cities and unincorporated communities, reported similar results for the year, with overall serious crime down more than 11% through Monday.

The numbers represent nearly 20,000 fewer crimes handled by the LAPD and Sheriff’s Department so far this year compared with last.

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Homicides continued to tumble in the city of Los Angeles and in the sheriff’s territory. Within city boundaries, 302 people had been killed by day’s end Sunday -- 62 fewer than in the same period in 2008. The Sheriff’s Department tallied 194 deaths, a 23% decline.

The totals are a fraction of the killings that occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the county had roughly a million fewer residents, but its urban core was in the grip of a crack cocaine epidemic and gang violence. Another prime marker of violence, the number of gunshots fired, was also down.

A curious and sharp drop in the number of auto thefts in Los Angeles as well as many other cities around the country pleasantly surprised police as well. The LAPD and Sheriff’s Department investigated about 7,200 fewer car thefts -- a nearly 20% drop. Police and industry experts attributed the decline to many reasons, including improvements in anti-theft tracking devices, car design and targeted law enforcement efforts.

“Vehicles are getting much harder to steal. A few years back with all the old American cars it just took a screwdriver and some yanking. Any joy-rider could walk down the street and rip off a car,” LAPD Cmdr. Andy Smith said.

Smith said he believes stealing cars also holds less cachet than it used to for teenagers who used to take cars for a thrill or to prove their mettle.

Southern California’s widespread decline in crime may be due in part to the example set by the LAPD’s long-running success under Beck’s predecessor, Chief William J. Bratton, said George Kelling, a leading criminal justice scholar at Rutgers University.

“Where police chiefs might have been perfectly willing to say, ‘It’s the economy or something else and there’s nothing we can do about it,’ their bosses -- mayors and city councils -- now know they can and should expect reductions in crime,” Kelling said. “There is now a pressure of, ‘If you can’t get the job done, we’ll find someone who can.’ ”

The downward crime trend did not hold everywhere, however. In Long Beach, for example, crime remained virtually flat through October, but homicides climbed from 30 to 35. Violent crime in Santa Monica was down considerably, but a surge in property crimes there in the first months of the year meant the city will finish the year with an overall increase.

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In Orange County, some cities patrolled by the Sheriff’s Department saw a slight increase in some types of crimes. But overall crime in Orange County’s unincorporated areas declined 4% through Dec. 1.

The overall progress made this year around the country further refuted a once widely accepted belief that crime rates rise amid economic downturns.

Criminologists have long puzzled over the effect the economy and society’s ills have on crime rates. One explanation suggests that layoffs have resulted in an increase in the number of people remaining at home and serving as “guardians” against crime in their neighborhoods, Kelling said.

Richard B. Rosenfeld, president of the American Society of Criminology, added that the federal government’s decision to extend unemployment benefits may have staved off some crime. And unlike the massive surge in crime during the economic turmoil of the late 1980s and early 1990s that was fueled, in part, by the explosion of crack cocaine sales, the current financial problems have not been accompanied by a dramatic influx of illegal narcotics, Rosenfeld said.

Kelling and Rosenfeld emphasized that much of the credit for the extended decline in Los Angeles belongs to the LAPD, which has continued to refine crime-fighting strategies and strengthen ties with community groups in neighborhoods where it was once viewed with distrust and hostility.

With city and county budget woes promising to worsen in coming years, however, Rosenfeld cautioned that the ability of the LAPD and Sheriff’s Department to keep up the gains depends on whether elected officials manage to continue to fund the two agencies at levels that allow them to maintain their ranks and strategies.

“Smart policing is not cheap,” said Rosenfeld, a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “Whether it will continue to succeed depends on whether communities can afford it.”

Since being appointed last month, Beck has echoed that notion, warning that the department will not be able to sustain current crime levels, let alone improve on them, if budget cuts force the LAPD to shrink.

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joel.rubin@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com


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