In the 1980s and '90s, rising crime, dilapidated streets and a perception that police alone could not keep the streets of Los Angeles safe led a few neighborhoods to take matters into their own hands.
In areas as varied as Old Pasadena, Westwood, Hollywood Boulevard and downtown L.A., business and property owners banded together to assess themselves and form umbrella organizations aimed at keeping their areas safe and clean.
The groups, known as business improvement districts, or BIDS, hired private security guards to help patrol their blocks and crews to clean up their sidewalks, as well as lobbying government officials to make other improvements in their area.
There are now more than two dozen such districts in Los Angeles alone, employing that security guard in front of your favorite downtown eatery and the woman sweeping the sidewalk near your stylist's trendy digs.
In the first comprehensive study of L.A.'s business improvement districts, the Rand Corp. said Thursday that the districts are having a significant effect on crime in their neighborhoods and that areas with such districts have significantly less crime than those without them.
As violent crime has steadily declined by half in the last decade throughout Los Angeles, the report suggests that areas of the city with active business improvement districts have fared even better -- particularly when it comes to robbery and other street crimes.
The districts "are not just gentrification efforts to displace people or the panacea to crime and making people's lives better," said John MacDonald, the leading researcher on the study and a criminology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. "These districts make a place not such an attractive place for crimes of opportunity such as robbery."
But the study also is likely to fuel the ongoing debate about the districts. Critics say the security guards are encouraged to push out undesirables and harass the homeless. And there have been concerns that the districts simply push crime into neighboring areas with no extra security.
MacDonald disputed that claim, saying the study found no evidence that enforcement within the improvement districts simply displaced crime to other neighboring areas.
The Rand study focused on a 12-year period from 1994 to 2005. In their examination of the city's 30 improvement districts, researchers found that violent crime dropped on average an extra 8% compared to the drop throughout the city during that period. For example, the study found that improvement districts saw an average drop in crime of 7% compared to 5.7% in areas without them.
Estela Lopez, who helped spearhead the creation of the Broadway district in Los Angeles in the early 1990s and now heads the Central City East Assn., which administers three improvement districts, said she was thrilled with the report's findings.
"It's the first time there's quantifiable evidence of the nexus between an area that has [an improvement district] in place and reduction in crime," Lopez said. "Of course, that makes me very happy."
MacDonald said researchers found that the areas that spent the most on security were generally the most successful. The Hollywood Entertainment and Fashion District improvement districts each spent more than $1 million a year on public safety and security, while at least three others spent more than $300,000.
The rise of the districts dovetails with Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton's push for community-based policing, based in part on the "broken-windows" theory that pushes for prosecution of small-scale crimes as a way of cutting down on blight in troubled areas.
LAPD Cmdr. Andrew Smith, who oversaw the department's Central Division downtown for several years, said the improvement districts act as a "force multiplier for our officers. There is no doubt in my mind that our success in reducing crime downtown was due in large part to our partnership with the [improvement districts]. Those folks are terrific to work with."
Kent Smith, executive director of the downtown Fashion District, said the improvement districts "aren't the silver bullet. But we are an important component in the revitalization of any commercial or mixed-use district. And downtown is a poster child for that."