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THE STATE

As L.A. Violent Crime Drops, the Desert Becomes a Hot Spot

August 08, 2006|Maeve Reston, Garrett Therolf and Doug Smith | Times Staff Writers

On a recent Friday night, San Bernardino County's interagency high desert gang unit was working yet another homicide, chasing yet another gang member who had moved from San Bernardino into one of the sprawling new developments beyond the Cajon Pass.

Police said 17-year-old "L'il George" announced his presence in the new neighborhood by shooting into a crowd outside an Adelanto house, killing 17-year-old Adrian Washington at his own birthday party.

Six days into the search, the gang detail was struggling.

"In L.A., the gang officers tend to work one area or one gang," said California Highway Patrol officer Royal Johnson, a member of the anti-gang task force. "We can't even keep up right now with who's moving in."

The high desert -- with rising homicide numbers, more gangs, too few detectives -- underscores a trend often overshadowed by the good news about crime in Southern California.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 11, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction
Crime rates: An article in Tuesday's A Section stated that property crime rates increased in a quarter of large Orange County cities from 2000 to 2005. Property crime rates were up in six of eight large cities, as shown in an accompanying graphic.

A Times analysis of FBI statistics shows that crime rates rose in some outlying areas at the same time they declined in many of Southern California's largest cities, led by a 36% drop in the rate of violent crime in Los Angeles.

Property crimes -- including burglaries and car thefts -- dropped 53% in Los Angeles while climbing 19% in Riverside County between 2000 and 2005.

Property crime rates also rose in a quarter of large Orange County cities.

Vehicle theft increased dramatically in several cities, including Moreno Valley, 62%, and San Bernardino, 55%.

The analysis examined crimes per 100,000 people, taking into account population growth during the six years studied.

Even with the increases, these outlying cities recorded far less violent crime overall than Los Angeles. With 807 violent crimes per 100,000 residents, Los Angeles had one of the state's highest rates in 2005. But rates in several outlying cities, including Riverside, Ontario and San Bernardino, surpassed Los Angeles in property crimes, The Times analysis found.

The trend has become an increasing topic of debate and concern among law enforcement agencies, which are studying patterns to see if it is spreading.

Although some of the increase can be attributed to population increases, that is not a full explanation. For example, the rate of violent crime rose more than 10% over the last six years in several older, built-out cities, including San Bernardino, Huntington Beach, Fullerton, Simi Valley and Downey.

In San Bernardino County and the Antelope Valley, authorities believe that affordable housing has lured residents from the inner city who in some cases bring gang affiliations with them.

Detectives also see a strong link between the rise in burglaries and robberies in some outlying areas and methamphetamine use, which is more popular in suburbs and exurbs than in cities.

In the past, crime waves have generally begun in urban areas and spread outward. Police are asking whether the new figures suggest that a crime trend is now beginning in outlying areas and might eventually move into urban areas.

"Things can't go down forever, but it's difficult to tell right now whether crime is trending up," said George E. Tita, a UC Irvine assistant professor of criminology.

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The growth in high desert towns, including Adelanto, has been rapid. For most of the drivers who pass through on Interstate 15, there is little reason to stop in this dusty town of 25,000 near the former George Air Force Base.

But affordable housing has helped triple Adelanto's population since 1990. Dozens of master-planned communities with rows of identical brown stucco houses have sprung up among the tumbleweeds. The average cost of a single-family home in Adelanto -- $310,000 in June -- is less than half that of Orange County and about 40% less than in L.A. County, according to figures from DataQuick Information Systems.

The most recent FBI statistics for cities of fewer than 100,000 have not yet been released, but through 2004, several desert cities, including Victorville, Apple Valley, Barstow, Rancho Mirage and Blythe, showed increases of 10% to 30% in the rate of violent crime.

In the first six months of this year, there have been more homicides in the high desert than during all of last year, according to Britt Imes, a San Bernardino County deputy district attorney who handles gang crimes in the high desert.

Sgt. Galen Bohner, who heads the high desert gang investigation team, said the hunt for L'il George was just one of many gang-related crimes his team has been working, including a homicide at a Victorville nightclub, more than a dozen drive-by shootings during a one-month period in Adelanto and a gang rape in Hesperia by three men believed to be members of the Rolling 60s Crips of Los Angeles.

The unit is grappling with gangs that have fanned out across the high desert. Home-grown gangs, including East Side Victoria of Victorville, the Brown Pride Gang and the Gents of Barstow, are fighting with transplanted gang sects from Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Rialto.

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