Homicides are down 8.4% from last year across Los Angeles County, according to a year-to-date tally compiled by the Los Angeles County coroner.
The coroner reported 351 homicides countywide from Jan. 1 to May 15, compared with 383 during the same period last year.
The sharp drop in the months leading up to summer -- traditionally a high homicide season in L.A. -- was spread across various regions of the county, but appears especially pronounced in some old hot spots, such as the MacArthur Park area, Watts, parts of South Los Angeles and the Pacoima area. Downtown Los Angeles also had fewer homicides than last year.
The dip in these areas has helped the Los Angeles Police Department report a 22% drop in homicides citywide this year. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which handles homicides in unincorporated areas and a number of smaller cities in the county, is also reporting a decrease in homicides, though not as dramatic as those of the LAPD. There have been nearly 10% fewer killings in sheriff's areas as of May 21, compared with the year-earlier period.
The coroner's numbers differ from those of the LAPD and Sheriff's Department for several reasons.
For one, they include homicides being investigated by all police agencies in the county, not just the LAPD and Sheriff's Department. Long Beach, for example, has had 17 homicides so far this year, compared with 10 at this point in 2005.
Also, the coroner uses a different definition of homicide than that of police agencies. The coroner's more comprehensive definition includes such borderline cases as a woman who died of a heart attack after her purse was snatched. It also includes justifiable homicides and killings by police officers. The latter have increased this year, adding at least 11 homicides to the coroner's tally.
But even though various agencies use different measuring sticks for homicides, they have all tracked the same broad trend this year -- a steep decrease in killings compared with last year, and a solid continuation of the current historic trend of relatively low violence.
But it remains to be seen if the year continues as quietly as it began. Homicides in Los Angeles County typically rise in the summer months -- especially August -- which can be traced to a number of factors, such as the fact that people in Los Angeles are more likely to be outside in summertime, and students are often out of school.
A less obvious factor is the problem of so-called "gang birthdays" in Los Angeles, which tend to fall in May, June, July, August and September. Many South L.A. criminal gangs celebrate their births based on their names, which they derive from the numbered streets where they originated. A gang named after 87th Street, for example, may celebrate its gang birthday on Aug. 7 -- "8/7".
Parties are high-risk scenarios for homicides generally, but even more so when they mark gang birthdays. For example, an argument on a summer cruise trip taken by a Watts gang to celebrate one such holiday several years ago led to a string of retaliation killings in the months that followed.
All told, the LAPD reported 139 homicides as of May 19, compared with 178 by the same time last year. The Sheriff's Department reported 130 homicides as of May 20, compared with 144 at that time last year.
Areas that have seen a drop in homicides include the sheriff's far-eastern and southern regional operational area, which covers San Dimas, Norwalk and Industry, and in the northern and western area, which includes Altadena, Palmdale and Lancaster. LAPD divisions that have posted significantly lower homicides this year include Southeast, Rampart, 77th Street, Central, Pacific and Newton.
Homicides also have dropped in outlying cities, such as Inglewood, which has reported seven homicides this year, compared with 20 at this time last year.
Areas where homicides have increased include the sheriff's southern region, covering Athens and Compton, where homicides rose by 12%, and the LAPD's Harbor Division, which also has seen a significant increase.
Several other areas have seen homicides stay the same or rise slightly, including the LAPD's Hollenbeck Division in Boyle Heights and its Southwest Division, which covers Exposition Park and the Crenshaw area.