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Homicide Figures Show Shift in City, County Rates

September 02, 2003|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

In a shift from past trends, homicides this year have increased in the unincorporated county and smaller municipalities, even as killings have decreased within the city limits of Los Angeles.

The figures show that homicides appear to be increasing in Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department territories -- even those directly adjoining areas patrolled by the LAPD, where homicides have sharply declined.

Many of these areas share ethnic and economic characteristics, as well as the same gangs and gang feuds.

Law enforcement officials were quick to point out that the number of Los Angeles Police Department officers has increased overall as the number of sheriff's deputies has declined.

They argue that the staffing differences give a powerful boost to the notion that the number of police officers has a direct impact on violence. The rising number of homicides in the county "is a reality check on how resources affect crime problems," Sheriff Lee Baca said.

But the figures also highlight the difficulties of interpreting short-term homicide trends, because some LAPD divisions with larger patrol forces are experiencing virtually the same homicide rates as last year.

Adding to the puzzle is the fact that assaults, another indicator of violent crime, have declined in the same period in Baca's territory, even as homicides have increased.

The good news is that murder remains down across Los Angeles County as a whole in 2003, driven by a precipitous slide in the city of Los Angeles.

According to statistics provided by the Los Angeles County coroner's office, which serves the region of 9.8 million people, there had been 729 homicides this year as of last week. August is traditionally the month with the most killings.

The coroner could not provide year-to-date figures for 2002, but measured as a monthly average, this year's homicide numbers are about 12% lower than last year's across the county.

Patterns vary widely from place to place. Homicides in the city of Los Angeles, for example, hit 326 last week, down 22% from 420 during the same time last year.

But in the unincorporated areas and cities patrolled by the Sheriff's Department, there were 217 homicides as of last week, an increase of 11%, or 21 homicides, over the same period last year.

Several high-level sheriff's officials said they believe the biggest increases in homicides have been in areas covered by the sheriff's Lennox and Century stations -- areas that border parts of Los Angeles where murders have fallen most sharply.

In both territories, murders today fit the patterns of past years. Most killings are the result of street violence, and victims are mostly Latino and African American men.

The adjacent LAPD areas have also benefited from Chief William J. Bratton's deployment doctrine, which funnels more resources where more crime occurs. This has meant about a 16% increase in patrol deployments in the LAPD's South Bureau, from 1,132 at this time last year to 1,323 today.

Additional officers have allowed the LAPD to put more pressure on local gangs in South Los Angeles, according to Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell.

In particular, extra units may have suppressed violence in some of the usual hot spots, such as the LAPD's 77th Division. Killings in that division, which extends south of Florence Avenue along both sides of the Harbor Freeway, are less than half the totals last year, when an explosion of gang violence caused rates to spike.

However, such arguments are complicated by a mixed picture elsewhere.

For example, LAPD's Southeast Division in Watts, adjacent to the 77th, has also seen a growth in officers. The number of officers there is up 22% from last year. But there, the trends have been less promising. Southeast has had the same number of homicides so far this year -- 47 -- as it had had at this time last year.

In fact, Southeast murder patterns seem to mirror those of adjoining Compton neighborhoods, which are patrolled by sheriff's deputies. Compton homicide levels this year are about equal to those last year.

The Sheriff's Department has been shrinking by attrition, in part due to county budget woes. Baca's total work force has declined about 5% in two years. The number of sworn sheriff's deputies has declined from more than 9,000 two years ago to about 8,900 this year. At the same time, the department has taken on more work, contracting to provide police services for more cities.

Baca said the department has been particularly hard-hit by cuts in federal community policing grants, which the Sheriff's Department had used for special outreach programs. Federal community policing grants to hire local law enforcement officers began in 1995 under President Clinton, who had pledged to increase the number of police officers nationwide by 100,000.

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