Despite a few highly publicized cases, Los Angeles is not "on the brink" of a major interracial crime wave, three University of California, Irvine scholars have concluded after examining assault, robbery and homicide data in the city's southern police precincts.
The researchers said that, although some crimes involving blacks and Latinos have been "sensationalized," the overall crime statistics suggest that offenders preying on people of their own group is a much bigger problem and should remain the focus of police attention.
"It sort of goes against the more spectacular stories that have been dramatized in the media," one of the researchers, UC Irvine assistant professor John R. Hipp, said of the findings.
"It's far more common to see [violence] going on within groups. We don't see any real trend here."
The study by Hipp and fellow UC Irvine criminologists George E. Tita and Lindsay N. Boggess compared aggravated assault, robbery and homicide cases between 2000 and 2006 in the four precincts of the Los Angeles Police Department's South Bureau against 2000 U.S. Census data.
It found that black offenders were nearly eight times more likely to kill another black person than to kill a Latino, and Latino offenders were nearly twice as likely to kill another Latino.
The robbery and assault picture was similar, the study found: Black offenders were six times more likely to assault those of their own race than to attack Latinos. Black offenders were about equally likely to rob from each group.
Latino offenders were almost twice as likely to assault fellow Latinos -- and almost three times more likely to rob them -- than to assault or rob blacks.
The report was presented to LAPD officials and a draft is being prepared for publication.
For their calculations, the researchers assessed the opportunity for blacks and Latinos to commit crimes against each other based on population size and the degree to which the two groups are intermixed.
They then looked at whether the actual crimes exceeded or fell short of predictions based on these calculations.
They did find what Hipp called "a blip" in one area: African American offenders showed an increased tendency to kill Latinos in 2005, while Latino offenders showed an increased tendency to kill blacks in 2006.
But the total numbers of killings involved were relatively small.
And because there were no similar trends in assaults or robberies, researchers were not sure what, if anything, the blips mean.
Overall, black-Latino violence is dwarfed by black-on- black and Latino-on-Latino crime, the researchers said.
The Homicide Report, an online project of the Los Angeles Times chronicling every killing in Los Angeles County, reported a similar finding about black-Latino murder rates.
The Times project examined 236 homicide cases from 2006 in the four most violent LAPD precincts -- including three South Bureau precincts and LAPD's Newton Division just to the north. Just 22 of those homicides crossed racial lines.
The majority -- 90% -- involved suspects and victims of the same race.
Same-group murder was the norm even in highly mixed areas. LAPD's Southeast Division in Watts, for example, is roughly 56% Latino and 40% black, according to census numbers. But of the 70 homicides there in 2006, only one was confirmed as black-on-Latino, and there were no Latino-on-black killings.
The study also echoed what many people in South Bureau law enforcement have said for some time: Racially motivated violence occurs occasionally, but tends to be overplayed by the media. Earlier this year a few high-profile cases, including the suspected racially motivated killing of 14-year-old Cheryl Green in LAPD's Harbor Division, fueled media speculation of rising racial conflict.
Although there are a few long-standing black-brown gang rivalries in Los Angeles, many detectives and police officers who deal daily with homicide were skeptical of a rising trend. "We don't see it happening," said Det. John Radtke, South Bureau homicide investigator.
Even when killings do occur across ethnic or racial lines, race typically does not play a strong role, said Det. Kelle Baitx, Newton homicide supervisor.
"It's on gang lines," he said. "It's on territory. It's not a race thing."
The UC Irvine study is provocative in what it didn't find: Researchers have speculated that the reason same-race violence so dominates is simply that different groups tend not to live close together.
Los Angeles, with its high degree of racial and ethnic mixing, offers "an interesting laboratory," to test this idea, Hipp said. This study hints that the thesis doesn't hold up: Violent crime seems to have to do with more complex factors than simple opportunity.