With homicides declining steadily after a large spike earlier this year, the Los Angeles Police Department has scaled back an emergency crime-fighting operation that had flooded South Los Angeles with officers from the elite Metropolitan Division.
Starting on Saturday, more than half of the Metro officers who were deployed in South Los Angeles were assigned to other areas, though they will still be dispatched to crime hot spots as needed.
As violent crime has stabilized in the most dangerous parts of the city, the Hollenbeck, Rampart and the San Fernando Valley areas are among those that have seen increases partly as a result of the Metro officers being diverted to the South L.A. mission, said Asst. Chief Michel Moore. The Metro officers, he said, need to go back to other neighborhoods to stop violent crime from gaining too much momentum there.
“We don’t want to live on borrowed time,” said Moore, who heads the department’s street patrol operations.
Moore called the South Los Angeles operation a success but one that should be “measured timidly,” because there are still too many homicides and shootings in the area.
The strategy of flooding problem areas with Metro officers intensified last year, when Los Angeles saw its first jump in both violent and property crimes in more than a decade. Mayor Eric Garcetti reacted in April 2015 by announcing a plan to expand Metro, which includes SWAT, K-9 and mounted units and also provides security for visiting dignitaries, from 200 officers to about 400.
Metro officers working on crime suppression were initially distributed throughout the city. Then, in January, killings in parts of South L.A. jumped 50% compared to the same period last year.
In response, the LAPD flooded the Newton, Southwest, 77th Street and Southeast areas, which together account for about 48% of the city’s violent gun crimes, with Metro officers. The department also set up a command center to analyze crime statistics each day.
Starting in March, station captains conferred by conference call every morning at 10 a.m. to go over crimes from the day before, discussing patterns and strategies as well as where Metro officers needed to be deployed that evening.
The Metro officers, who receive specialized training and must pass rigorous physical fitness tests, have concentrated on areas where gangs are active or where a rash of crimes have recently occurred. They drive unmarked cars and do not have to respond to 911 calls as patrol officers do, so they can cruise around looking for vehicles to pull over for minor infractions such as tinted windows.
LAPD commanders would not release the number of Metro officers deployed in South L.A., citing safety reasons.
As part of the operation, motorcycle officers, who typically write traffic citations, focused on preventing robberies by spending time in areas where crimes have occurred, handing out fliers and getting to know residents. More detectives were assigned to night shifts so investigations could get started more quickly. Officers kept an eye on repeat offenders, visiting their homes and doing parole or probation checks.
If a murder could spark a retaliatory killing, officers tried to prevent more bloodshed by identifying people who might have a reason to seek revenge and by using gang intervention workers to tamp down rumors.
LAPD commanders point to the number of guns seized — more than 800 since the operation started in March — as one measure of success.
“We wanted to abate this crazy rise, and we did that,” said Cmdr. Dennis Kato of the South Bureau.
Though there will be fewer Metro officers in South L.A., the morning statistics meetings and some of the crime-fighting strategies will continue.
When the South L.A. operation began in March, homicides in the area were up by 33% over the year before. By early September, the area had recorded 83 killings versus 93 at the same time last year, an 11% drop. The number of shooting victims was down by over 19%, though violent crime was still up by over 14%.
Meanwhile, in the Hollenbeck Station area, which includes El Sereno, Lincoln Heights and Boyle Heights, violent crime has gone up by 28% compared to the same period last year. In the Rampart Station area west of downtown, homicides have increased by 150%, to 20 this year from eight a year ago.
Citywide, there have been 205 homicides this year, down 2% from last year. Robberies are up over 12% and aggravated assaults 14%. Over the last two years, violent crime has increased nearly 37%, and property crime has risen by 18%.
Crime is also up in areas patrolled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which has seen a 9% increase in violent crime and a 5% increase in property crime over the last year.
Jon Shane, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former police officer, said that saturating an area with cops would be expected to produce short-term gains but is not a long-term solution.
“Solving the root cause of crime will not be accomplished by crackdown operations, that’s for sure,” Shane said. “You need a much more systematic intervention than just going out and taking enforcement action.”
LAPD commanders said they have continued with community policing strategies such as foot patrols, even as Metro officers who are not based in the area are engaging in more aggressive tactics, such as stopping drivers for minor violations and then searching the cars if they can find legal justification.
“We made a concerted effort not to cast the net on whole communities but on the people involved in that activity,” said Bill Scott, deputy chief of the department’s South Bureau.
But Peter Bibring, a senior staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said that making pre-textual vehicle stops alienate people in minority communities, many of whom are already suspicious of the police. Bibring likened the practice to the New York Police Department’s controversial stop-and-frisk, which ended after a federal judge ruled it to be unconstitutional.
In the vast majority of vehicle stops, “ordinary people, law-abiding Los Angeles residents, are treated as criminals by police because they live in one of these targeted areas, which are primarily communities of color,” Bibring said. “The treatment of law-abiding residents as if they’re criminals is corrosive to police-community relations.”
Last week, on a morning conference call for the South L.A. operation, Lt. Alex Vargas of the Southwest Station detailed some crimes from the night before.
A man with a tattoo of a cross on his cheek tried to rob a smoke shop using a handgun, Vargas said. In another incident, a group of juveniles suspected in several robberies ran from the police, and a 14-year-old who resembled the nerdy television character Urkel was bitten by a police dog.
After Vargas finished, Kato announced that one Metro platoon would continue patrolling the lower Baldwin Hills area, where gang activity has been a problem.
With a recent fatal police shooting in North Carolina sparking controversy, Kato urged the station leaders to check in with community leaders and see if any local demonstrations were planned.
Then Scott, the deputy chief, spoke.
“With everything that’s going on across the country, with the national news and policing, just remind your folks, as we do what we need to do to keep crime down, to take the time to explain to people why you’re stopping them,” he said. “Please just talk to your folks and make sure we’re doing our jobs in a way the public can accept, and I think we’ve been doing that.”
For more news on the Los Angeles Police Department, follow me on Twitter: @cindychangLA