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Hope in the Data of Death

September 10, 2003

Homicides are down in Los Angeles so far this year, which is welcome news for a city that in 2002 led the nation in sheer numbers killed. By the end of August, the toll stood at 326 -- still far too high -- but down 22% from the corresponding period a year ago.

Criminologists caution that short-term crime trends are hard to interpret, especially concerning homicides. A drop in the number can depend on factors as random as a gangbanger's poor aim or an ambulance driver's deft steering through traffic. Just because surgeons in Los Angeles' battle-hardened trauma centers can save victims of street violence from the homicide rolls doesn't mean there's less mayhem on city streets. A better barometer, then, is the number of shooting victims. The good news is that these are down 19% -- though, again, not enough.

Homicides are up in unincorporated areas patrolled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, even in those that adjoin Los Angeles Police Department-patrolled neighborhoods where homicides and shootings have declined. The reasons could be some of those cited earlier, especially given that shootings in these areas are slightly lower than they were a year ago.

But it's worth noting that county budget woes and dwindling federal grants have kept the Sheriff's Department from replacing deputies lost to attrition. The LAPD, which had hemorrhaged cops in recent years, this year staunched its losses. It also has begun to assign officers based on computerized crime mapping, assigning additional officers to crime hot spots.

This year's improvements in the numbers, short-term as they are, make a case for continuing the new tactics, and, given how infamously underpoliced Los Angeles is, hiring more cops to do so. The Los Angeles City Council this year turned down a request to increase the size of the LAPD, citing the uncertain economy. Now it should grab the chance to hire 240 more officers by using a recently announced $18-million federal grant. The city has until 2006 to come up with money to match the grant, which is plenty of time to plan ahead.

The still-too-high toll makes an even more powerful argument for action. Take just one of August's killings. A shootout between suspected gangbangers in a crowded Pico-Union restaurant left a customer and a waitress who tried to stop the confrontation dead. The waitress, Yesenia Rodriguez, who had two children, owned the Flor Blanca with her mother and two sisters. She was one day shy of her 29th birthday. In the all-too-familiar altar of votive candles and flowers left outside the restaurant, someone wrote: "She was murdered cruelly and without mercy."

Unlike the numbers, these words are heartbreakingly clear.

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