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Differing Views of L.A. Crime

Chief: Clashing figures cited in reappointment battle cover different time frames.

April 16, 2002|DOUG SMITH and JILL LEOVY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks says crime is down on his watch. Rick J. Caruso, president of the Police Commission, which voted last week not to reappoint Parks to a second term, says crime is rising.

Who's right?

Actually, both men are correct, but each is using numbers selectively to best make his point.

Caruso cites the city's crime rate for the most recent two-year period covered by FBI statistics. During that time--1999 through 2000--the city's murder rate increased by 26%.

Parks, who is due to appear before the City Council today to appeal the commission's decision, takes a more long-term approach. The murder rate in 2000 was 9% lower than when he became chief in 1997.

Even assuming that the crime rate is a good way to measure a police chief's effectiveness--which some criminologists dismiss--the verdict of whether the city is safer than when Parks took charge is much less clear than either claims.

Parks, whose bid for a second term has been opposed by Mayor James K. Hahn, came into office midway through the largest crime decline in decades. The violent crime rate bottomed out at about the midpoint of his five-year term and is now heading back up.

Overall, the city's murder and robbery rates are still lower than when Parks became chief, but not by much.

Parks invited the scrutiny of crime rates as a measure of his success or failure almost immediately after being appointed by former Mayor Richard J. Riordan in August 1997.

Vowing to make Los Angeles "the safest big city" in the nation, he told reporters that "if [crime] decreases, it is a positive for ... L.A. If it increases, the chief of police hasn't done his job."

In announcing the commission's 4-1 vote against Parks last week, Caruso cited comparative crime statistics among the reasons the chief did not deserve reappointment. "Violent crime has continued to rise, while according to FBI statistics, cities such as New York and Chicago are experiencing a drop in violent crime," Caruso said. "[Since] 1999, violent crime is up and continues to rise, a trend this commission cannot nor should ignore."

Caruso is correct that the murder rate has risen slightly in Los Angeles in each of the three years since 1998.

And FBI statistics show that the rate has fallen in New York and Chicago in recent years, although in New York it went up slightly in 1999 and then down again in 2000 and the first six months of 2001.

But looking at America's five largest urban centers over the last six years for which the FBI has full statistics, the trend in Los Angeles is similar to the other major cities.

New York experienced the most persistent drop in violent crime from 1995 through 2000. Murders dropped almost in half--from 16 per 100,000 people to 9--and robberies from 810 to 420.

In Chicago, murders fell from 30 to 22 per 100,000 over the same period, and robberies from 1,094 to 679. Violent crime was also trending down in Houston and Philadelphia, though more modestly.

In Los Angeles, murders declined from 25 per 100,000 people to 15 and robberies from 841 to 418.

There were strong signs in all five cities that the downward trend for violent crime was leveling off in 1999 and 2000. But, while the crime rates for murder and robbery continued to edge slightly downward in New York, Chicago and Houston, they moved upward in L.A--from 12 murders per 100,000 in 1999 to 15 in 2000 and from 395 robberies to 418. For 2001, the murder rate in Los Angeles was up again slightly after a decline during the first six months, according to LAPD statistics.

Yet at the same time, L.A. had the lowest robbery rate of the five big cities and a lower murder rate than Chicago or Philadelphia.

All five cities looked positively safe compared with Detroit, the nation's 11th-largest city, which had a murder rate of more than 40 per 100,000 in all six years.

None of these statistics is necessarily relevant to how well a chief does his job, some criminologists say. To them, the puzzle is why crime rose so dramatically in cities across the nation during the 1980s and early 1990s.

In Los Angeles, for example, the number of murders in 1990 was 983; but 10 years later, there were 550 murders.

Some suggest that the violent crime spike was an exceptional peak that is unlikely to repeat itself. Possible explanations include the crack cocaine epidemic and a jump in gun use by juveniles.

Many experts agree with Parks' view that at least one factor driving the city's crime numbers up recently is that the rate declined so much by the late 1990s that the only direction left to go was up.

"It can't go down forever," said John E. Eck, associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati, who has studied the impact of policing on crime. "It has to bounce back up."

Eck urged caution about drawing any conclusions on recent trends. Despite the debate in Los Angeles over who is to blame for crime, "one can easily see what's happening in Los Angeles now as just the natural course of events," he said. Adults returning to the streets from prison are probably another factor, he said.

Eck said Parks and Caruso are on shaky ground when they try to link crime trends to policing. Studies seeking to demonstrate that link show mixed results, he said.

For example, there is little evidence to show that increases in the size of police forces during the 1990s had an impact on crime rates, he said.

One reason may be that crime--especially drug crime accompanied by violence--tends to be highly concentrated geographically. Therefore, increasing the number of police officers across an entire city results in only a limited number of new officers present in any single neighborhood.

Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.

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