Violent crime fell 14% in Los Angeles last year but homicides held steady, eluding Police Chief William J. Bratton's ambitious goal of reducing killings by 20% or more.
There were 511 homicides in the city in 2004, a shade below 2003's total of 516. Overall, there were 6,500 fewer violent crimes last year, including drops in rapes, robberies and assaults.
Crime has emerged as a key issue in this spring's mayoral race. Mayor James K. Hahn, who faces a tough reelection fight, has made the drop in crime since Bratton took office a centerpiece of his campaign.
But Hahn's opponents criticize the mayor for being unable to significantly increase the size of the Police Department during his first term. Hahn and Bratton had backed a half-cent countywide sales tax on November's ballot to raise money for more officers, but voters rejected it.
Bratton expressed disappointment that homicides didn't decline further, but said he believed the overall crime drop showed that Los Angeles is getting safer.
"Would I have liked to have done better in [reducing] homicides? Absolutely," said Bratton, who was appointed by Hahn as chief in 2002. "But when you look at my two years here overall, we're out of the gate pretty fast.... That's a self-initiated goal that no other police department in the country has."
With no new infusion of cash on the horizon, LAPD officials said they are trying to get the most they can from the existing police force by moving more desk officers onto the streets and concentrating resources in high-crime areas.
"At the end of the day, there are over 6,000 people and their families who would have been the victims of a serious violent crime had the numbers remained the same as they had a year ago," said Assistant Chief George Gascon, head of LAPD operations. "We accomplished the reduction [in violent crime] with less resources and less overtime but better focus by the men and women working the streets."
Los Angeles' flat homicide numbers contrasted with other large cities. Nationwide, slayings in other cities with more than 1 million residents were down nearly 9% as of midyear, according to FBI statistics. Numbers for all of 2004 were not available.
The number of homicides fell 4% in New York through mid-December and tumbled 25% through Dec. 27 in Chicago compared with the previous year. (Those departments, however, have far more police officers per capita than the LAPD. For example, Chicago has 13,500 officers for 2.9 million residents while Los Angeles has 9,100 for 3.7 million residents.)
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department also saw the number of homicides remain relatively flat last year.
Experts have long pointed out that killings are a tricky measure of a city's crime problems. Whether a victim dies of a gunshot wound often comes down to how good a shot the assailant is and whether the victim can get medical attention quickly.
There were roughly 600 fewer reported shooting incidents in Los Angeles in 2004, and about 60 fewer people were wounded by gunfire compared with 2003. Police officials pointed to these numbers as signs of progress.
Response time -- the critical measure of how long it takes officers to respond to calls for help -- fell from 9.6 minutes in 2002 to 6.5 minutes as of mid-December.
It is the swiftest response time ever recorded in Los Angeles. Bratton accomplished that by lifting a longtime ban on the use of lights and sirens in responding to most calls.
Also showing promise was Bratton's experimental district policing program in the Harbor, Hollywood and Rampart divisions, where lower-ranking supervisors devise crime-fighting strategies.
Of the 18 LAPD divisions with the largest reductions in serious crime, Hollywood Division led the way with a 16.4% drop, and Harbor Division ranked third, with 16%.
Five divisions had a greater than 20% decline in violent crime: Van Nuys, 22.4%; Wilshire, 22.3%; Rampart, 21%; Pacific, 20.9%; and Central, 20%.
In the San Fernando Valley, where police are stretched thin because officers must cover greater distances to respond to radio calls, property crimes fell by 10%, led by a 19% decline in auto thefts. In the busy Foothill Division, for example, violent crime was down 12% and property crime declined by 9%.
Citywide, 2004 property crime was down about 10%.
South Bureau, which has led the city in violent crime, had 8.1% fewer such crimes in 2004. But it led the way in homicides, which rose 5.4%. The bulk of the killings took place in the 77th Street Division patrol area, which reported 82 killings. Southeast Division reported 72 and Southwest Division reported 63.
Bratton raised eyebrows last year when he first predicted that he would reduce crime by certain numbers. During his first full year in office, the LAPD saw a 23% decline in homicides.
Under Bratton's so-called 10-50 plan, the department concentrates resources on the top 10% of violent criminals, who commit 50% of all crimes. The department also employs special task forces to quickly deploy to hot spots, and has increased field rotations of administrative personnel to fill police ranks depleted by 160 officers.