Homicides in Los Angeles have sharply increased in the first two months of this year, reversing nearly five years of decline and posing a puzzling challenge for Police Chief William J. Bratton.
“I take responsibility when it goes down, I take responsibility when it goes up,” Bratton said at a news conference Wednesday to address a recent series of shootings.
The 74 killings so far in 2008 mark a 27% increase compared with the same period last year. The jump in homicides has included several high-profile killings, creating a perception of escalating violence.
Homicide experts and police officials cautioned that it is too early to conclude whether the increase is a spike or the beginning of an extended rise, but Bratton and his top commanders have been flummoxed by the random, unrelated nature of the killings.
Several of the deaths occurred during domestic fights or similar incidents that have no common factor linking them, police said, making it difficult to fashion a comprehensive response. Further perplexing officers is that the rising homicide rate is set against a 5.1% decline in violent crime overall that includes a more than 2% drop in rapes and aggravated assaults, as well as a 25% drop in gang-related homicides. Gang killings can often account for upticks in the rate.
Although there have been more homicides in the city of Los Angeles this year, the trend in the county as a whole appears to be flat. According to preliminary data from the county coroner’s office, the number of homicides so far in 2008 for all of the county, including Los Angeles, is about equal to the figure for this time last year.
Authorities say some of the increase in Los Angeles can be attributed to incidents involving multiple victims.
“One death is one too many, but we think it’s a bit of an anomaly,” said Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger, who oversees the department’s strategy of deploying additional officers to neighborhoods when violence flares. “At this point, there is no rhyme or reason to it. And finding those links is our bread and butter when it comes to figuring out what’s going on. These are largely transient, independent episodes to which we cannot identify a center point.”
Bratton put it more bluntly: “It is just a lot of the good old-fashioned homicides -- people killing each other out of passion or during the commission of a crime.”
One of the city’s more deadly areas, where there have been 10 killings this year compared with three in 2007, has been northeast of downtown. Much of that tally is a result of a running battle between two gangs in the Cypress Park and Glassell Park area, which has bucked the citywide decline in gang killings.
“It got calm in the last five years,” said local businessman Gus Lizarde, president of the Cypress Park Neighborhood Council. “In the last two years, we actually had that small-town feeling again, where you can walk on the streets.”
A spate of brazen attacks throughout the city on apparently innocent passersby has also given rise to a perception of escalating violence that has complicated the issue for police.
In the last few weeks alone, a high school football star was shot to death as he walked home, gang members engaged police in a wild shootout in Glassell Park and a gunman opened fire at a bus stop, wounding five children.
“If you have a string of cases with truly innocent victims, it will have a much greater impact on the psyche of the region,” said James Alan Fox, a criminal justice expert at Northeastern University in Boston. “It is not crooks killing crooks. It is crooks killing or shooting children, athletes and police officers, and that influences people’s perception of events.”
To combat that perception, Paysinger said he ordered thousands of detectives and other officers who typically wear civilian clothes on the job to don their blue uniforms.
“We want to establish a strong uniformed presence, mostly to send the message to the community that we are partners with them and that they will be kept safe,” he said.
Bratton and others emphasized that each of the year’s homicides is being “dissected,” not only by detectives trying to find killers in unsolved cases but also by supervising commanders looking for ways to stem the surge. Paysinger held a recent three-hour meeting with top commanders from throughout the department to examine the facts in each case. And at the LAPD’s weekly strategy sessions, in which crime statistics are examined neighborhood by neighborhood, special attention has been paid to homicides.
“We’ve had increases at the start of the year before that have dwindled as the year has gone on,” said Deputy Chief Charlie Beck. “It doesn’t mean we aren’t doing the right thing. We need to keep working at it, and we will succeed. We know that from the last few years.”
Regardless, the numbers so far are a reversal for Los Angeles, which over the last five years has enjoyed significant drops in homicides and crime in general. Only months ago, Bratton and city officials celebrated the fact that Los Angeles had fewer homicides in 2007 than at any time since 1970.
The chief said he remains optimistic that the homicide rate will level off or start to decline in coming months, especially as several hundred new officers come onto the force to bolster crime-fighting efforts. He said he is confident that the overall crime rate will again drop in 2008.
He hesitated, however, about whether the city would see another record low in killings.
“We’re not off to a good start. We’ll wait and see as we go along,” he said, calling for stiffer regulations on handguns, which are involved in a majority of the city’s homicides.
Fox said that when it comes to crime, police departments such as the LAPD can set marks that are hard to reach again.
“You become a victim of your own success,” Fox said. “You have decline, decline, decline in homicides, and at a certain point, really the only way is up.”
Bratton, perhaps more than any other chief in the country, has taken responsibility for homicide and overall crime statistics, arguing that police work -- and not other factors such as the health of the economy -- is the prime reason they rise or fall. He didn’t back off from that stance Wednesday as he gave the closing remarks at an international conference on gangs, in which he said repeatedly that “cops count, police matter.”
“We are the most significant component in the criminal justice system because we are on the front lines,” he told the group of law enforcement officials. “We are the people who make the arrests. We are the people who through our presence and our practices are charged with preventing crime and making our neighborhoods safe.”
Times staff writers Jill Leovy and Sam Quinones contributed to this report.