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Foes Say Hahn Fails on Crime

Rising homicide rate means the mayor has failed to deliver on his promise to make L.A. the nation's safest big city, election rivals say.

September 08, 2004|Jessica Garrison and Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writers

In an early indication that Mayor James K. Hahn's record on crime could become a key issue in next year's mayoral race, several candidates on Tuesday questioned whether Hahn was delivering on his promise to make Los Angeles "the safest big city in America."

Hahn has made public safety the centerpiece of his administration, frequently touting his role in cutting crime and often appearing at public events with LAPD Chief William J. Bratton.

Last week, however, Bratton conceded that he would fail to reduce the number of homicides in the city by 20% this year, as he had promised.

The number of homicides so far this year is higher than at the same time last year. Although the city could still end the year with fewer murders than last year, the mayor suddenly appears vulnerable on an issue that has been one of his strongest arguments for a second term.

On Tuesday, Councilman Bernard C. Parks drew attention to the city's high number of homicides, particularly in his own South Los Angeles council district, and said he plans to hold hearings on the issue. "The mayor has offered the safest big city as his goal," said the former police chief, who is challenging the mayor. "The issue is, have we achieved the safest big-city status?"

Hahn pushed Parks out as chief in early 2002, and named Bratton to replace him.

Three other mayoral candidates joined in the debate after Parks announced that he would introduce a motion today to call the LAPD before the City Council's Public Safety Committee to address its long-term crime-fighting strategies. He said he wanted the department to develop "strategies that will bring safety to our communities."

Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa and state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sun Valley) endorsed that proposal, and former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg said the mayor had failed to deliver on his No. 1 promise.

"How does he explain that homicides are dropping in New York City and Chicago and going up in Los Angeles?" Hertzberg asked. "He just hasn't delivered."

Alarcon said he blamed the mayor for not doing enough to arrest hard-core gang members who are behind many killings, and for not finding a way to hire more officers for the LAPD.

"We are not the safest big city in America," Alarcon said. "That speaks for itself."

Villaraigosa said he wants the police to "focus our resources on those places which are hotbeds for violent crime." He also said he wants the city to set aside money for police overtime to step up enforcement in areas where gang-related murders are increasing.

Hahn downplayed the rising homicide statistics Tuesday and vigorously defended Bratton's record, saying that his leadership has improved the department and sent overall crime rates plummeting.

As of Saturday, there had been 368 homicides in Los Angeles this year, compared with 353 at this time last year, a 4.2% increase. By comparison, New York City experienced a 7.7% drop as of Aug. 15, and Chicago's rate dropped by 25.6% through July 1.

But Los Angeles' overall violent crime, including assaults, rapes and armed robberies, is down 15.2% through Saturday.

"We're going to keep going with the strategies we have," Hahn said. "We're still better off than we were two years ago," the mayor said, referring to the period in which Parks was chief.

In 1998, Parks' first full year as police chief, there were 419 murders, but in 2001, his last full year, there were 591, according to the LAPD's 2003 statistical digest. In 2002, the year that Bratton took over, the number of murders reached 647.

The mayor declined to speculate on whether Parks had seized on the issue for political gain, saying that it was appropriate for council members to concern themselves with public safety.

But Hahn's chief campaign strategist, Bill Carrick, had no such qualms.

"This is all disingenuous, and it's all intended to be political grandstanding for his mayoral candidacy," Carrick said. He added that when Parks headed the LAPD, he sometimes found himself on the other end of questions about crime statistics.

"We should have a debate between Chief Parks and the new Councilman Parks about the meaning of these statistics," he said.

Crime has been a central issue in Los Angeles mayoral campaigns since the early 1990s, when homicide rates spiked across the city and nationwide.

In his 2001 campaign, Hahn promised to make fighting crime a top priority, emphasizing his 20 years as city attorney and saying that his challenger, Villaraigosa, had an "abysmal" record on crime.

Before Hahn, Richard Riordan, a political novice, had swept into the mayor's office in part on a pledge to "turn L.A. around" with a major expansion of the police.

"Public safety is always of paramount importance in city elections, and especially elections for mayor," said political consultant Larry Levine.

But Levine added that crime was not nearly as bad as it was a decade ago, so complaints by challengers may not resonate as much with voters.

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