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Keeping killers in check

L.A.'s homicide count is the lowest since the '70s as anti-gang efforts pay off. We need more of the same.

December 29, 2007

Maybe the best holiday gift Los Angeles received this year was the news that fewer of its citizens are being murdered. As The Times reported this week, the city is on track to end 2007 with the lowest homicide count since 1970, when L.A. had 1 million fewer residents. Public officials, police and academics give differing reasons for the drop in violence, but it's a phenomenon to be celebrated regardless of its cause. And it's evidence that police efforts to crack down on gangs -- the source of most of L.A.'s killings -- should be continued and strengthened; despite the good news, the war on gangs isn't anywhere close to being won.

Gentrification is one of the explanations offered for the drop in gang homicides. Communities such as Venice, Echo Park, Hollywood and downtown are experiencing demographic changes as rising home prices have brought wealthier residents in and pushed poorer ones out. That doesn't mean the displaced gangsters have simply disappeared. Many have moved to places such as San Bernardino, where the murder count is up this year, or the Bay Area, or Fresno, or to other states. Though Angelenos certainly appreciate the reprieve, chasing crime somewhere else isn't the same as reducing it.

The senselessness of gang violence, meanwhile, remains unchanged, and may even have worsened. The Times' Homicide Report blog, which seeks to document every killing in Los Angeles County, is replete with cases like the murder of 16-year-old Raymond Cortez, shot in November outside Paramount High School, allegedly by a gangster who had recently attempted to steal the teen's bicycle. Even more common are drive-by shootings in which the victims, usually young black or Latino men, are gunned down after giving the wrong answer to the question "Where are you from?" Some of these killings may be retaliatory strikes by rival gangs, but in many cases the victims appear to have been chosen at random, and often they aren't gang members themselves. Killing, for some L.A. gangsters, isn't about protecting drug turf or avenging slights but an expression of blind rage and hopelessness. It's a recreational activity for youths with guns but no consciences.

New strategies from Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton have undoubtedly played a part in the reduction in street killings. They aren't a cure for the social ills that breed gangs -- poverty, drugs, discrimination, a breakdown in the nuclear family, disrespect for authority, media glorification of gangster culture -- and aren't sufficient in themselves to eliminate the problem. But they're part of the solution. Keep them coming.

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