Crime in Los Angeles dropped for the fifth consecutive year in 2006, bucking trends both for the nation and in other regions of Southern California, where violent offenses are increasing.
Crime numbers reviewed Tuesday show that as of late December, total crime across Los Angeles was down about 8%, with major drops in burglaries, car thefts, rapes and assaults.
Homicides dropped about 4%, from 487 in 2005 to 464 as of Dec. 23 this year, according to Los Angeles Police Department statistics. The only crime to rise in 2006 was robbery, up 6% to 13,943 incidents.
The crime numbers boost the prestige of Police Chief William J. Bratton at a time when he is seeking a second five-year term and writing a book about how other cities can combat crime.
"You can't be lucky seven times in a row. If I was, I'd be making a living hanging out at the blackjack table," the chief said Tuesday, noting that crime dropped not only during his tenure as police chief in Los Angeles but also when he was chief in Boston and New York.
Bratton has long sparred with some criminologists, who question how much credit the LAPD -- or any other police agency -- can really take for crime declines. They believe falling crime is caused by myriad factors, including the economy, demographics and urban gentrification.
But on Tuesday, even some skeptics were tipping their hats to the chief, saying five straight years of decline clearly shows the LAPD is doing something right.
"Bratton has focused on gangs, guns, and drugs," said University of Chicago law professor Bernard E. Harcourt, who was co-author last year of a paper dealing with Bratton's record in New York that provoked the chief's ire. "And I think we are seeing that it has paid off. Larger national trends affecting major U.S. cities are obviously contributing to the declines, but Bratton's focus ... has proven successful."
James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University in Boston, agreed, adding: "There is no external factor that would explain such a large decline. It has to do with crime prevention and crime control at the local level."
Fox pointed to a recent FBI report showing violent crime up 4% nationwide in the first six months of 2006. The study found significant per capita increases in violent crime in several Southern California cities with populations of more than 100,000, including Lancaster, Orange, Inglewood, Santa Clarita, Ontario and Moreno Valley.
For the full year, Orange County's two largest cities, Anaheim and Santa Ana, recorded increases in violent crime, officials said Tuesday.
Santa Ana began the year boasting that police had made strides against gang violence, recording 13 gang homicides for 2005, the lowest in more than a decade. But the number of gang homicides for 2006 reached 17 last week with the fatal shooting of two 14-year-old boys.
The killings, coupled with an increase in robberies this year, have city leaders worried.
"I fear that we are slowly but surely going back to the 1990s, when it was really bad," said Santa Ana City Councilwoman Michelle Martinez, who helped organize a town hall meeting Thursday on crime that attracted more than 100 residents.
Mary Bloom Ramos, a 55-year-old woman who works a block from last week's shooting, said that one nearby friend has installed quarter-inch steel plates in his home to block bullets. Another friend said she fell to the floor three times one recent night as shots rang out in the neighborhood.
Los Angeles continued to see significant gang violence in 2006, although LAPD records showed that overall crime declined across the city. There were some notable geographic differences.
In some gentrifying areas, violent crime dropped significantly, down nearly 7% in the Hollywood Division, nearly 8% in Rampart Division and nearly 5% in the Wilshire Division.
But in South Los Angeles, the rough Newton Division saw a 4% increase in violent crime, and the Hollenbeck Division in Boyle Heights recorded a 5% increase.
Robberies surged 33% in the West Valley Division, from 446 through Dec. 23, 2005, to 595 a year later.
The Valley was the scene of dozens of takeover robberies of businesses believed to have been carried out by a gang of masked men who cleaned out cash registers and took cash and jewelry of customers.
At Cafe Trottier, a sandwich and coffee shop in a strip mall at the corner of Winnetka Avenue and Sherman Way, manager Patricia Roberts said there have been three robberies of neighboring stores in recent months, including two at the same nearby fast-food restaurant and another at a chain drug store.
"There's a lot of fear, especially knowing there have been attempts," she said in a recent interview. "We are all concerned it will be our turn."
Despite the robberies, however, LAPD officials noted that overall crime numbers have not looked so rosy in some time.