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L.A. County homicides decrease by 6%

January 11, 2007|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

Homicides fell 6% in Los Angeles County in 2006, totaling 1,085 in 2006 compared with 1,153 the year before, according to a tally by the Los Angeles County coroner.

Areas policed by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and some smaller police agencies saw the biggest decreases. The total number of homicides for unincorporated areas and contract cities policed by sheriff's deputies in 2006 was 323, a decline of 13% from 371 in the previous year.

By contrast, the Los Angeles Police Department reported only a 2.4% decrease in homicides for the year, a smaller drop than previously reported due to an end-of-the-year killing surge.

Over the last five years, there has been little in the way of a clear homicide trend in Los Angeles County. The mixed picture suggests that economic conditions and policing tactics influence homicide, said Richard Rosenfeld, a professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

A recession in the early 1990s corresponded with high homicide counts, while economic boom times in the late 1990s were accompanied by a sharp fall in the rate. Since then, volatile, mixed economic conditions have corresponded with similarly mixed homicide trends, Rosenfeld said.

Asked if he thought police efforts were primarily responsible for homicide trends, Sheriff's Chief Ronnie Williams chuckled.

"Me?" he said. "I tell you, I pray a lot."

Much of last year's decrease in homicides countywide stems from Compton, which lies within the sheriff's jurisdiction and was last year the focus of a task force of two dozen additional Sheriff's Department deputies and investigators. Sheriff's officials, who use a different definition of homicide than the coroner, counted 28 fewer homicides in Compton in 2006 than in the previous year.

But Compton's decline was more than made up for by increases in homicide in nearby areas such as South Gate, and the sheriff's Industry, Lennox and Temple patrol areas. Homicides also increased in Lancaster and Inglewood.

The fact that homicides countywide still decreased overall represents small improvements across many cities and unincorporated areas, including Long Beach, Hawthorne and Glendale, where a fatal train crash, caused when a vehicle was deliberately driven onto the tracks, inflated the 2005 count.

There also were declines in areas that have received less public attention, such as the sheriff's Century district, which includes Lynwood and the unincorporated areas of Florence, Firestone, Walnut Park, Willowbrook and Athens. Homicides there dropped 43% between 2005 and 2006.

Williams attributed the decrease in the Century area to other factors, including improved relations between police and residents and an active clergy council in the area. "You have to have that relationship, but you need boots on the ground too," he said.

Though small, the city of Los Angeles' drop follows larger decreases in 2003 and 2005. Overall, L.A. city homicides have declined at a faster rate than the county's as a whole over the last few years. The city total for 2006 was 176 homicides fewer than in 2002, when Police Chief William J. Bratton was appointed.

For all this success, however, Bratton still has not achieved the homicide lows of his predecessor, Chief Bernard C. Parks. Under Parks, homicides in Los Angeles dropped to their smallest number in decades, hitting a low of just 419 in 1999. The low numbers tracked the national trend.

The LAPD has had recent success in averting the kind of killing surge in high-crime areas that has historically boosted homicide statistics.

Areas such as Compton, Watts and South-Central Los Angeles, where homicide rates are perennially high, tend to be subject to sudden, sharp spikes in killings. The LAPD's 77th Street Division in South Los Angeles, for example, exploded with about 120 homicides in 2002, more than in the entire San Fernando Valley that year.

Since 2002, though, the LAPD has managed to keep its highest-crime divisions from seeing huge homicide spikes. In 2006, for example, the 77th Street Division reported just 67 killings, a decrease of 10% from the previous year.

LAPD spokesman Lt. Paul Vernon said the department's accomplishments should be judged less on homicides than on so-called part one crimes, which dropped 7.7% in Los Angeles last year -- a statistic he called more indicative of the overall trend.

A decrease in part one crimes -- which include murder as well as property offenses such as burglary -- has been touted by Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who bragged at a recent news conference that the city's crime rates were the lowest they have been since the 1950s.

However, this is largely due to decreases in property crimes, not violent crimes, which barely budged between 2005 and 2006 in the city of Los Angeles.

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