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Region sees rise in crime

Homicides are down, but the L.A. County Sheriff's Department reports a 4% uptick in serious offenses in 2007.

January 04, 2008|Richard Winton | Times Staff Writer

While homicides fell significantly, serious crime in the dozens of communities patrolled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department rose 4% overall in 2007 -- prompting Sheriff Lee Baca to warn that a worsening economy could present a tough crime picture for 2008.

An increase in robberies, aggravated assaults, burglaries and other property crimes drove the crime uptick, according to statistics compiled by the department, which protects about 3 million people.

Baca said rising unemployment in some impoverished communities doesn't bode well for the year ahead.

"Our economy is driving the property crimes -- burglary and larceny," the sheriff said. "In some communities, with high unemployment, some people resort to theft."

Baca's concerns are borne out by Los Angeles County's unemployment rate, which stood at 5.3% in November, nearly 1% higher than the same month a year before. It was the largest year-to-year increase since 2002.

At the same time, however, serious crime dropped 4.9% on neighboring turf patrolled by the Los Angeles Police Department, which also recorded its fewest homicides -- 392 -- in 37 years. LAPD Chief William J. Bratton, in comments Wednesday, differed sharply with Baca in his analysis of crime.

"I will take them all on, the economists, the criminologists, all of these people who give you the baloney," Bratton said. "What makes the difference is cops focused on crime."

Malcolm Klein, professor emeritus of sociology at USC and a gang expert, said Bratton is mistaken in deriding socioeconomic factors but said it's overly simplistic to draw a direct connection between unemployment and the crime rate.

"The answers are more complex. It may be something going down nationally," Klein said.

"It's hard to believe the economy in the county areas is any different than in neighboring Los Angeles," said George Tita, a UC Irvine criminology professor. "The reality is we don't know what . . . makes crime numbers go up and down."

Baca also blamed narcotics for fueling the rise in thefts, burglaries and robberies in the more than 3,000 square miles his deputies patrol. "Drug users commit a couple of hundred crimes each a year," he said.

Baca said that his 17% reduction in homicides, coming on top of a 13% plunge in 2006, is a success story. Deputies investigated 273 slayings, down from 328 the previous year.

Compton was a bright spot, reporting a sharp drop in homicides since 2005.

That year, the city recorded 72 homicides, placing it among the nation's deadliest cities on a per capita basis. Last year, there were 38.

Baca credited aggressive gang enforcement and a close partnership with communities such as Compton for the turnaround in homicides.

"We can make a difference when it comes to gang murders, but it is much more difficult when it comes to other kinds of murders," Baca said. "In Compton the word is out that things have changed. Gang members are getting out of town."

Anti-gang deputies have concentrated on getting guns out of the hands of gang members. Last year, sheriff's officials and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives shut down a Compton gun store that had sold nearly 900 weapons that ended up being confiscated during criminal investigations.

Store employees had illegally helped criminals buy guns by encouraging them to use friends or family with clean records to pass background checks. Thousands of guns were seized during the raid.

The serious crime category includes homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assaults, burglary, car theft, larceny and arson.

Rapes declined 7%, but robberies rose 3% and aggravated assaults jumped 6%.

Burglaries climbed by 6% and larceny/thefts went up by 7%, while vehicle thefts declined by 5%.

Sheriff's officials said there was also a 12% jump in arson -- from 904 in 2006 to 1,015 last year.

"That is almost three a day," said sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore. "It's a growing concern. We're locking arsonists up more than ever."

--

richard.winton@latimes.com

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