In the aftermath of last month's earthquake, thousands of police officers, sheriff's deputies and National Guard troops helped keep criminals off the streets in record numbers, according to internal police records.
Day-by-day records gathered by the Los Angeles Police Department and obtained by The Times show that so-called "repressible crime"--those crimes that experts say can be deterred by uniformed police officers--dropped 21.5% during the second half of January, the period after the Jan. 17 earthquake. The biggest drops were recorded in the San Fernando Valley, but the statistics reveal that decreases were logged in 17 of the LAPD's 18 geographic areas, some of which sustained relatively little earthquake damage.
Take the Southwest area, a South Los Angeles community that saw some of the worst rioting in 1992 but which was far from the area hardest hit by the earthquake: Repressible crime there was down 14.6% during the last two weeks in January. And in the LAPD's South Bureau, one of America's most violent areas, even homicides took a holiday: The bureau, which usually averages more than a murder a day, enjoyed a six-day hiatus from homicides, the first time in recent memory that the area has gone for so long without a killing.
"We had some extremely significant drops in crime throughout South Bureau," said Deputy Chief Mark Kroeker, who recently was put in charge of the LAPD's operations in South Los Angeles. "It really makes the point that there's no limit to what we can do with additional officers."
The repressible crime statistics--which include murders, most aggravated assaults, robberies, burglaries, thefts from cars and auto thefts--bolster the lower arrest numbers released by the department during the days after the earthquake and help dispel any suggestion that arrests were down only because the LAPD was busy performing other duties rather than arresting suspects.
Moreover, although some decreases in reported crimes are almost certainly attributable to the outpouring of goodwill that followed the 6.7-magnitude quake, the breadth of the crime drop suggests to many analysts that the department's mobilization, which put thousands of additional officers on the streets, had a marked impact on crime in the city.
"When you have a significant increase in uniformed visibility, it does have an impact on repressible crimes," Police Chief Willie L. Williams said Monday. "Those are crimes where visibility can take away the opportunity for someone to commit a crime or at least raise the stakes of them doing it and getting away successfully."
Williams and other department officials noted that a similar drop in repressible crimes occurred during the weekend after last year's federal verdicts in the Rodney G. King civil rights case. The LAPD mobilized for the end of that trial, and its increased presence helped thwart crime during that period, officials said.
A similar mobilization was activated within hours of the earthquake, as officers throughout the department were ordered to work 12-hour shifts. In addition, the department canceled days off and, because many courts were closed for a few days after the quake, officers who would have been required to testify in cases also were on the streets.
Although advocates of a bigger Police Department say more officers could deter a variety of crimes, uniformed police are especially effective at discouraging "repressible property crime"--burglary, theft from cars and auto theft. Those crimes are generally committed in public, and it is those crimes that generally showed the greatest reduction in the aftermath of the earthquake.
On the day of the quake, property crime throughout the city dropped precipitously. Many observers place little long-term emphasis on that drop, however, as so many residents were scrambling to assess damage to their homes and apartments that few--even criminals--had time to go about their business.
More significant, Police Department officials say, is the fact that property crimes remained relatively low during the next week or so, while extra patrols roamed the streets of Los Angeles.
On Jan. 18 and Jan. 19, nearly 5,000 police officers, sheriff's deputies and National Guard troops patrolled the city. For those two days, an average of 350 repressible property crimes per day were reported, compared to more than 500 on a typical day.
For the week as a whole, the citywide average after the earthquake was 400 property crimes a day. As the deployment began to ease back, property crime gradually rose to its normal levels: Between Jan. 24 and Jan. 30, with the National Guard pulling out of the city and the LAPD scaling back its mobilization, criminals committed an average of 549 repressible property crimes per day.
"What this does present the city is a challenge," Williams said of the numbers, "a challenge to come up with a reasonable way to put more people on the street."