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Are we safe yet?


“This achievement is particularly noteworthy given the state of the economy.” –Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa

News that homicide rates in the City of Los Angeles have plummeted to 297 for the 2010 year (314 had been recorded in 2009), down from as many as 1,000-plus in 1992, generated a round of backslapping and congratulations by law enforcement and civil servants alike, followed by conjecture about how this downturn was achieved, and whether these developments would continue.

The figures are a public relations windfall, almost too good to be true, as these numbers are slightly above the 281 recorded in 1967, when the city’s population hovered around 2,500,000. It is now approaching 4 million, an increase of almost 30 percent.

The landmark proclamation flies in the face of the popular cultural perception of “El Lay” as the epicenter of the reckless “gangsta” lifestyle. Media portrayals have for years been dominated by images of urban landscapes saturated with the sound of police helicopters (“ghetto birds”), punctuated by gunfire reminiscent of the Vietnam War epic “Apocalypse Now,” and have become synonymous with L.A. as well as a staple in scores of urban crime dramas.

The cause of the drop and the meaning of these numbers will be studied far into the future. Jim Lafferty, executive director of L.A.’s National Lawyers Guild, offered a cautious explanation:
“While I am in no way an expert on what decreases or increases the murder rate in Los Angeles [mean], I suspect at least three factors play some role in explaining the decline in the murder rate, of late: 1) the changing nature of the demographic makeup of L.A.’s population … immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants, are actually more law-abiding, in general, than the rest of us; 2) the aging of the population; and 3) better police work.”

An Ancient Prohibition
“…if anyone slew a person–unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land–it would be as if he slew the whole people…” –Translation of the Fifth Chapter, 32nd Verse of the Qur’an, from the USC Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement website.

The sanction against killing crosses virtually all belief systems, moral precepts, and religious creeds. Violent crime is, of course, a surefire emotional touchstone for politicians and civil servants to rally around during elections and other periods when public backing is needed to secure financial support. The specter of fear, and the assurance of security guarantee the sway of community sentiment, even in periods of relative stability.

Homicide and murder are not always the same. The judicial system makes clear-cut distinctions between homicides and murders, which might be useful in examining the relative condition of public safety in contemporary Los Angeles. A murder is always a homicide, but a homicide may or may not be murder. In a homicide a killing has taken place, but may not necessarily be an illegal act. Murder is always against the law. Thusly, such legalistic terms as justifiable homicide have evolved.

For Mayor Villaraigosa, Police Chief Charlie Beck, and those sharing the podium to make the announcement, this was an eagerly awaited validation, and they predictably attributed much of their success to proactive policing and improved community outreach. This is an obvious turnaround from the tumultuous days of the 1990s, when the department came under fire from every conceivable direction. The Rodney King incident, the chaotic hooliganism of the ’92 riots and subsequent police failure/refusal to engage looters and others, as well as the shameful disclosure about brutality and corruption within the Rampart Division, were a nadir of despair for the once proud paragon of law enforcement. News of substantial statistical improvement, especially the historically odious offenses to the good order within society have been taken as a return to professionalism and justification for renewed civic trust.

Reductions are claimed by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department as well, notably within the confines of the jurisdiction of Compton–widely heralded as the birthplace of “gangsta rap,”–whose police force they replaced at the turn of the century. The Hub City celebrated a 16 percent drop from 207 homicides in 2009 to 175 in 2010.

Given this recent history, it is reasonable to suspect that authorities might try to “fudge” figures to appease public support. UCLA Public Policy professor Mark Kleiman expressed his confidence in the accuracy of these reports by noting that:

“…murder is the one crime that’s hard to conceal. I think new anti-gang strategies by the LAPD deserve a big share of the credit; the police have switched from a single-minded intention to destroy all the gangs to a much more nuanced approach that focuses on preventing violence, and in particular understanding patterns of retaliation in order to prevent the next homicide.”

Clarification and vindication
 The first and possibly foremost factor in accessing these figures is the recognition that crime in all categories has been falling for most of the past decade, and this trend has been observed across the nation. Thus, the temporal effects of the recession must be measured against other, long-term consequences that can sway the crime rate outside of economic considerations.

The census and other population barometers say that the average age of Americans is rising, and as people mature into middle age and beyond, they are less likely to be involved in crime. A quick glance at the coroner’s numbers for the 1,030 total homicides within the county jurisdiction since 2007 shows that only 26 of them involved people of age 80 or older. Another societal change involves improved security measures, especially the influx of low-cost surveillance. The probability of security cameras documenting illicit acts has likely gone a long way in discouraging burglaries and robberies, even though no tangible methods can verify this.

Advances in technology, significantly DNA testing, have contributed as well, in tandem with improved police procedures that allow detectives to identify patterns in criminal behavior, in some cases enabling them to predict (and prevent) the next retaliatory slaying in the aftermath of gang killings. Another, invaluable resource has been the role of interventionists, many of them former gang members, who step in after neighborhood shootings to “calm the waters,” or neutralize acts of revenge.

Aqueela Sherrills helped orchestrate the 1992 truce between the Crips and the Bloods, and currently serves as local coordinator for California Crime Victims for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, a San Francisco-based consortium of family and friends of murder victims committed to the repeal of capital punishment. He sees the recent homicide drops as a sign of successful strategic partnering between law enforcement and community resources.

When asked to elaborate, Sherrills submitted the following reply:

“Because intervention workers live in the communities they serve, they are aware of the many conflicts that escalate into murder before they happen. This gives them a unique position of being able to intervene in the conflict, before it becomes violent. They also play a key role in suppressing retaliation, because of their relationships to perpetrators and those who would naturally support them out of turf loyalty.”

Another often overlooked factor may be the “safety net” provided by social institutions. Impoverished individuals able to utilize federal assistance such as food stamps, general relief, unemployment welfare or other governmental support systems are afforded an attractive alternative to crimes, which can easily lead to violence and murder.

Much of this is, of course, a matter of conjecture and provides a liberal-slanted explanation for these social changes. On the other end of the political fence, conservative law-and-order pundits can point with some justification to the mushrooming prison population. Simply put, many of the miscreants likely to commit bloodshed are unable to do so, because they are locked up. The “three strikes law” so denigrated by left-leaning factions may finally exhibit some benefits.

Informal scuttlebutt from conservative anonymous sources attribute the current drop in crime to everything from relaxed attitudes about abortion (lower-class women were encouraged to practice abortion, which cuts down on the number of potential criminal offenders) to unexpected benefits from the bursting housing bubble (raging foreclosures successfully evicted scores of miscreants who were previously responsible for much of the violence), much of it with racist undertones.

Demographic shifts
Other trends for consideration include the population shift in terms of ethnic diversity. While Los Angeles has grown 3.5 percent in the past decade, the African American presence has actually declined from an estimated 17 percent to 11 percent over the last quarter of the 20th century and the start of the millennium, replaced largely by Hispanics in traditional Black enclaves like Watts and the rest of South Los Angeles, and to a lesser degree by Asian and other minorities.

The trend of declining and shifting African American population rates has been replicated in major urban areas across the country, in step with the plunge in homicides. Before one jumps to the conclusion that the scarcity of Black inhabitants means a drop in potential criminals, it’s worth noting that the areas they are fleeing to have experienced reductions in bedlam as well.

Major destinations for those making the exodus from Los Angeles include Riverside and San Bernardino counties in the Inland Empire. Curiously, these “sanctuaries” were notorious as bastions in the manufacture of methamphetamine. Stories of rampaging speed freaks and hazmat team raids dotted the headlines, as sort of a macabre rural counterpoint to the crack cocaine epidemic that confounded the inner city.

These areas, including the Antelope Valley, have recorded homicide reductions (a drop of 20.4 percent from 2009 to 2010), no small feat for an area once declared the crystal meth capital of the country. Lancaster has recorded a steady drop in homicides from 13 in 2007, 11 in 2008, to 10 in 2009 and 8 in 2010, as sheriffs’ pushed the “crank” industry south into Mexico, where they presumably contribute to the carnage that highlights the cartel drug wars waged there.

Drops in local homicides fly in the face of conservative groups like the Tea Party, who claim that illegal immigration drives up the crime rate. Nowhere is this more evident then in El Paso, which recorded five murders in 2010, the lowest in more than 40 years, and the lowest number for cities with populations over 500,000. In sharp contrast, its Mexican sister city of Ciudad Juarez, a hub in the artery of one of the major global drug trafficking corridors, and separated by the bridge that spans the Rio Grande, dwarfs the carnage of places like Baghdad (Iraq) and Kabul (Afghanistan) in the Middle Eastern combat theater with more than 3,000 murders in 2010.

Reports from border towns and other cities in the Southwest (including Los Angeles) show no signs of overflow from the armed conflict to the south. Racial tension between African and Hispanic Americans have, of course, fueled the gang violence that led to homicide rates over the past few decades.

These patterns have been substantiated partially by anecdotal evidence submitted by people within the community. For youthful thugs coming up in the “bangin” tradition of the Southland, targeting other minorities along with Blacks was “the thing to do;” the rationale being that preying on Caucasians was more likely to bring unwanted attention from the law.

“Acey,” a mainstay of a time-honored South Central street gang, recalls the influx of impoverished refugees from Central America during the early 1980s. Arriving in mass from the civil strife raging in their native lands, these newcomers disembarked with few resources, no documentation to secure legitimate work, and thus turned to sidelines off the “lawful” economy. Thousands of immigrants began hawking fruit, flowers, and other merchandise on the traffic meridians of Southland streets. Others labored at construction and handyman jobs as part of the “underground economy,” where they could be paid in cash and not go through the hassles of green cards, Social Security, and so on.

This also made them the perfect victims for established Black street gangs entrenched within the South Central underworld. Newly arrived, they had not developed any street smarts, and in the parlance of the time were “marks” or “tricks,” as ripe for the taking as the fruit they hawked to survive.

Immigrants habitually had hundreds of dollars in currency on them, were not likely to use banks, and shied away from reporting to the police because of negative experiences with the death squads, juntas, and strong-arm tactics used to support the regimes of their homelands, and because they were undocumented and in the country illegally.

As their numbers grew, the sequence was reversed, and prey became predator. In time-honored fashion, they organized for protection, giving rise to the transnational criminal gangs (especially Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13) that proliferate today, and go a long way toward explaining the Black-Hispanic street violence that continues at present in an endless cycle of retribution and revenge that may be considered a local form of ethnic cleansing.

More explanations:
“Truth will come to sight; murder cannot be hid long.” –William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice. Act ii. Sc. 2.

“Murder, however, has always been a bit different, simply because of its universal seriousness, the existence of institutions to deal with death, and the difficulty with which it is hidden.” –Estimating the Accuracy of Historic Homicide Rates, New York City and Los Angeles; from the Spring 2001 issue of Social Science History by Eric Monkkonen

Robyn Diehl, a professor of developmental psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University, seeks to bridge the gap between academics and law-enforcement agencies to address the needs of communities who suffer from the effects of violent crime. Contributors to her research include criminologists and police officials who’ve worked to build positive relations with the communities they serve. In times of prosperity, this meant investments in overtime and man hours to establish “trust banks” of goodwill and mutual respect. She theorizes that as the financial infrastructure lost momentum and funding evaporated, these relationships continued and the police are still able to make “withdrawals” in the form of community cooperation, even though the economy has turned sour.

These withdrawals can be manifested in the form of information useful in the apprehension of felonious perpetrators, and hopefully signal the end of the cultural prohibition against cooperation with the police and the corruption of justice that accompanies this destructive ritual.

Collecting and appraising statistics in sociological studies is an imperfect science, and adjusting policy decisions on the merits of year-to-year fluctuations is dangerous at best. But as Kleiman said, the absolute concreteness of death, its finality compared to other crimes makes it and the collection of data relating to it a riveting yardstick of measurement. Even though some legal scholars remain skeptical about this dramatic turnaround, the endorsement of organizations with track records of opposition to law enforcement (such as the ACLU) speak volumes about the validity of these claims. No statistical breakdowns for individual geographic divisions within the LAPD for the year 2010 were available at press time. This in turn, inhibits efforts to evaluate homicide/murder rates within specific local neighborhoods, including those of the inner city.

Nonetheless, carefully collected data impartially and objectively evaluated, is thus far the best technique discovered, and yields discernible patterns and variations which may be reviewed with other independent studies. In some municipalities, such as San Francisco, the numbers have spiked, to be sure, but overall these reductions cross jurisdictions and geographic boundaries, indicating a general societal change. Further review by separate, independent examiners from dissimilar disciplines ensured that the most accurate findings humanly possible were arrived at and recorded for future researchers who can build upon and amend them to arrive at new, more precise discoveries.