For the first time in more than four decades, Los Angeles is on track to end the year with fewer than 300 killings, a milestone in a steady decline of homicides that has changed the quality of life in many neighborhoods and defied predictions that a bad economy would inexorably lead to higher crime.
As of mid-afternoon on Sunday, the Los Angeles Police Department had tallied 291 homicides in 2010. The city is likely to record the fewest number of killings since 1967, when its population was almost 30% smaller.
Strikingly, homicides in the city have dropped by about one-third since 2007, the last full year before the economic downturn, according to a Times' analysis of coroner records. Throughout the rest of the county, which is patrolled by the L.A. County sheriff and individual cities' police departments, homicides during the same period tumbled by nearly 40%. The Times' analysis showed 159 homicides in areas patrolled by the Sheriff's Department and 164 in the rest of the county through mid-December.
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The city's total translates into roughly 7.5 killings per 100,000 people and puts it in league with New York City and Phoenix as having among the lowest homicide rates among major U.S. cities.
"I never thought we'd see these numbers," said Sal LaBarbera, a veteran homicide detective with the LAPD. "It is night and day compared to the old days. Night and day."
Longer-term declines are even more notable. The city's homicide rate this year marks a 75% drop from 1992, when 1,092 people were killed during a crack cocaine epidemic and gang wars. Homicides investigated by the Sheriff's Department have dropped by more than half since the mid-1990s.
The change, experts say, is not easily explained and is probably the result of several factors working together, including effective crime-fighting strategies, strict sentencing laws that have greatly increased the number of people in prison, demographic shifts and sociological influences.
A significant factor, said Columbia University Law School Professor Jeffrey Fagan, is the absence of a drug epidemic in recent years. The three distinct periods in U.S. history when homicides have spiked, he said, coincide with the emergence of heroin, powder cocaine and crack cocaine, each of which gave rise to "a chaotic, violent street drug culture."
The decline in homicide rates can be seen in places like Los Angeles' West Adams neighborhood. A strip along the south side of the Santa Monica Freeway that is home to about 22,000 people, the neighborhood tallied 17 homicides between 2007 and 2009, making it one of the deadlier areas in the city.
Then, the killing stopped.
Barring deadly violence in the next few days, West Adams will end 2010 with no homicides since a fatal stabbing early on Christmas morning a year ago.
"We are such a small area, we felt every one of those killings," said Elbert Preston, 59, a lifelong resident of the area and president of the West Adams neighborhood council. "It's great to see the changes that are happening here. I give a lot of credit to the work the police are doing, especially on the gangs. But it's also about people in the community becoming more involved."
A few neighborhoods, including Watts and Westlake, have struggled with homicide rates that have not declined significantly over the last four years. Many others, like West Adams, have seen a significant decline. Homicides in the Vermont Square neighborhood of South Los Angeles, for example, have declined in each of the last four years, from 15 in 2007 to three so far this year, the Times' analysis found. Killings in Compton and Long Beach held steady for the three previous years, then posted steep declines this year.
Homicides, which are less likely than other crimes to go unreported, are a bellwether of overall crime rates. Through Dec. 18, the LAPD had posted an 11% decline city-wide in overall violent crime — homicides, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults — compared with the same period last year. Major property crimes in the city were down 6% from last year, according to LAPD statistics. It is the eighth consecutive year that crime has fallen in the city.
Crime in areas patrolled by the Sheriff's Department has been largely stagnant this year, with violent and property crime rates through the end of November down slightly from last year, department figures show.
Law enforcement officials say they worry that depleted resources and staffing shortages brought on by the fiscal crisis could erode their gains. The LAPD has had no money to pay officers for overtime. In lieu of being paid cash, officers have had to take compensatory time off from work. The plan has had the effect of cutting the force by the equivalent of about 500 officers.