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You're Not as Safe as You Think You Are

June 19, 2005|Elliott Currie | Elliott Currie is professor of criminology, law and society at UC Irvine and the author of "Crime and Punishment in America."

During the recent Los Angeles mayoral campaign, there was much talk, mostly by Mayor James K. Hahn, about downturns in the city's crime rates. The celebratory buzz muddied the issue in two ways: It exaggerated the real state of public safety in the city, and it offered no substantive ideas on how to deal with the violence that still plagues many neighborhoods.

The risks of dying by violence in L.A. are higher today than when I began studying crime in the 1960s. Since then, there have been several much-touted declines in crime -- each followed by a resurgence.

Crime has dropped in L.A., but it has also fallen -- sometimes faster -- in several other U.S. cities. Although mayors and police chiefs naturally want to take credit, it's notoriously difficult to pinpoint why a city's crime rate fluctuates in the short run.

The more fundamental -- and sobering -- reality in the last few years is that L.A.'s rates of murder, robbery and aggravated assault have towered over those of other big California cities.

Angelenos are roughly 2 1/2 times as likely to be murdered as San Diegans, and between four and five times as likely as residents of San Jose. They are more than twice as likely to be victims of serious assault as San Franciscans, and closer to three times as likely as residents of San Jose.

A San Diegan's chances of being robbed are about one-third less than what an Angeleno faces, while for a resident of San Jose it's less than one-fourth.

These comparisons might be unfair because L.A. suffers more from the deep-seated social problems -- poverty, community disintegration -- that breed crime. But without a more concerted effort to tackle these ills, we won't reduce the disparities in violence.

The police officers on the front lines are usually the first to tell you that they can't solve these problems alone.

With Mayor-elect Antonio Villaraigosa taking office July 1, it's time to confront the tangled roots of violence in L.A.'s communities, develop fresh ideas about how to remedy what Father Gregory Boyle calls a "lethal absence of hope" among so many of the city's young people, creatively think about how L.A. can smooth the reentry of thousands of inmates released to its streets every year and build innovative strategies against family violence that terrorizes too many women and children and ensures that we'll suffer more street violence in the future.

Although these issues can't be resolved at the local level alone, strong local leadership -- and a willingness to experiment and innovate -- can make a L.A. a safer place to live.

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