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South L.A. Killings Get Less Police Attention Than Others

Detectives' caseloads are nearly 30% higher than in Valley, Westside. Chief plans to shift manpower.

July 28, 2003|Jill Leovy and Doug Smith | Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles Police Department has for years assigned more detectives per homicide in safer, more affluent parts of the city than in Central and South L.A., where the murder problem is most acute.

People killed in the city's most dangerous neighborhoods over the last 12 years have gotten less attention from LAPD investigators, on average, than those killed in West Los Angeles or the San Fernando Valley, according to an analysis by The Times.

This disparity has helped create a backlog of unsolved killings -- nearly 5,500 -- concentrated mostly south of the Santa Monica Freeway.

Hundreds of blocks in the hardest-hit neighborhoods have three or more unsolved homicides each. Those who live near these murder scenes know the killers may still be at large -- perhaps close by. Residents talk of fear and an atmosphere of lawlessness. No region of the Valley or West L.A. has a similar concentration of unsolved homicides.

Although the LAPD has employed more homicide detectives in the South Bureau, the difference has not been enough to balance workloads with those of detectives in other bureaus, the Times' analysis found.

For example, as of last week, the LAPD's Southeast Division, which covers 10 square miles in the Watts area, had more homicides this year than the 200 square miles of the San Fernando Valley. One Valley division, Devonshire, has four detectives who had investigated 11 homicides this year. Southeast has twice as many detectives -- eight -- but they have had to investigate more than three times as many homicides -- 37.

Interviewed about The Times' findings, Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton said that he has been planning to shift detectives so that "we put bodies where the workload is." Changes will come in the next few months, he said, including more parity in homicide caseloads.

The explanation of the city's failure to put homicide detectives where they are most needed is the story of an LAPD divided between two worlds. In one, residents jam police lines with complaints of larceny and stolen cars. In the other, people are hurt and killed in the streets.

The LAPD's limited detective ranks are stretched between these competing demands, and across four vast geographic bureaus: South, Central, West L.A., and the Valley.

For decades, the department has provided a full complement of investigators in every one of its 18 divisions in these bureaus, even those with few homicides.

The arrangement has kept many constituents happy, but it has made it difficult for the LAPD to even out the workload.

Except for a brief period in the mid-1990s, the number of homicide detectives deployed to South L.A., the area with the highest number of killings, has never been equal to the task. For the dozen years covered by The Times' analysis, South Bureau detectives had caseloads that were nearly 30% higher than the average for their Valley and Westside counterparts; Central Bureau detectives had caseloads that were about 60% higher.

South L.A. has the most unsolved cases -- more than 2,000 over 12 years. This is nearly 40% of the total unsolved cases citywide, even though South Bureau residents make up only 18% of the city's population, according to LAPD statistics.

Central has the second largest number of unsolved cases, with 1,775.

Both these bureaus have higher proportions of minority victims than the Westside or the Valley. South Los Angeles victims were 67% black and 26% Latino. Central victims were 18% black and 63% Latino.

LAPD executives from the 1990s said they had little choice in deployment. They could not have assigned more detectives to homicide without depleting the ranks of those investigating other crimes, they argued.

But a UCLA historian and homicide expert, Eric Monkkonen, when asked to comment on The Times' findings, criticized the deployment of detectives, saying that homicide should be given more priority. The most afflicted neighborhoods, he argued, should get proportionately more detectives, not fewer.

"Isn't it a no-brainer?" asked Monkkonen, the author of four books on crime and the editor of a 15-volume history of criminal justice. "If you have a fire, that's where you send the firetrucks."

Unsolved homicides are concentrated in South L.A. largely because there are more killings there. But South Bureau's overworked detectives also solve cases at lower rates.

Since 1990, their arrest rates on average have been 23% lower than those of their colleagues in the Valley, for example, where investigators handle fewer cases and have more time.

Homicide detectives say it is especially difficult to make arrests in South L.A. Police have historically had a troubled relationship with minorities in this part of the city -- especially blacks. In addition, fear of gang retaliation makes witnesses reluctant to step forward. Detectives say they often need extra time to find them and persuade them to talk.

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