For more than a decade, the Los Angeles Police Department has pointed to year-end statistics showing big drops in crime as proof the agency was making the city safer.
But as 2014 draws to a close and the numbers show violent crime has climbed for the first time in 12 years, Chief Charlie Beck has struck a decidedly different note.
“One thing we’ve become trapped in doing is looking at crime year-to-year, month-to-month, day-to-day,” Beck told reporters earlier this month. “When you do that you don’t get a clear, overall picture.”
His comments came after months of questions about the accuracy of the LAPD’s crime data, which the department has long used to set crime-fighting strategies and assess the success or failure of various operations.
Through Saturday, LAPD figures showed a decline in property crimes, but more than a 12% jump in violent offenses over the same period last year. All four types of crime that account for the city’s violence total had increased: Robberies and homicides were up slightly; rapes climbed 12.4%.
By far, the most dramatic rise was in aggravated assaults — serious attacks that typically involve a weapon or serious injury — which rose 24.2% compared with 2013.
The increase in assaults coincided with a Times investigation this summer that found that the LAPD significantly understated the city’s true level of crime when it misclassified nearly 1,200 serious violent crimes as low-level offenses during a recent one-year period. The bulk of those errors were made when police recorded aggravated assaults as minor incidents.
The department has since tightened its procedures for classifying crimes, especially assaults, and Beck has said the better record-keeping was one factor in the spike in aggravated assaults. But he also noted that the department has seen a dramatic rise in cases of serious domestic abuse, which Beck said have driven up the assault totals as well.
Determining how much of the crime increase was due to improvements in record-keeping is difficult, experts said. To do so, reporting errors made in previous years would need to be corrected to ensure that comparisons were accurate.
Department officials declined to make public multiple years of crime data that would have made such an analysis possible. The LAPD’s inspector general is conducting an audit of the department’s crime data that is expected to examine statistics from previous years.
LAPD statistics show an increase of nearly 1,900 aggravated assaults so far this year over 2013. While Beck has focused on the domestic violence cases, more than 60% of the incidents were actually other types of serious assaults, according to LAPD data analyzed by The Times.
As for the domestic violence cases, the department recorded more than 900 incidents through Saturday — four times as many as in all of 2013, the data showed.
Beck has suggested on several occasions that the increase was due, in part, to national campaigns meant to increase awareness about domestic violence that pushed up the number of victims willing to come forward to report the crimes to police.
But the domestic violence surge recorded by the LAPD has not been seen in neighboring law enforcement agencies. Instead, other departments have experienced declines in domestic violence cases, as well as aggravated assaults in general, The Times found.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reported serious domestic violence assaults had dropped by 25% through the end of December compared to the same time last year, according to sheriff’s data.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department, as well as the New York Police Department, saw serious domestic violence cases hold steady through early December, according to data provided to The Times.
Several criminal justice experts said the fourfold increase in domestic violence cases is most likely the result of the LAPD’s effort to be more accurate in how it classifies crimes.
“Things don’t quadruple from one year to the next,” said James Alan Fox, criminology professor at Northeastern University. “There is no real reason to believe that all of a sudden men and women are abusing their partners more than ever.”
Police officials declined to discuss the domestic violence figures. A spokesman for Beck said the chief was expected to address the assault totals when he and Mayor Eric Garcetti release the department’s year-end statistics in mid-January.
In commenting that the department has become “trapped” by its close tracking of crime statistics, Beck said it was important to take a longer view of crime trends.
“I don’t think L.A. is less safe,” Beck said. “I think we have some things we have to work on. But folks have to recognize that crime cascades over time.
“We have seen a steady declination in crime, and I believe that we will continue to see it,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that every year will be safer in every exact category as the year before. But the overall trend in crime in Los Angeles has just dropped dramatically.”
Beck cited the homicide rate, which remains at a historically low level, and other important bellwethers of safety, such as shootings, as indications that the city remains on solid footing when it comes to levels of violence.
Jay Wachtel, criminal justice professor at Cal State Fullerton, said that because the department has changed the way it classifies crimes, it probably will take several years before the LAPD’s statistics provide an accurate accounting of crime in the city.
“Now that we have a certain reporting standard, if they hew to that standard then we can actually see which way the trend line goes,” Wachtel said. “It will take time for it to shake out within the department.”