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Overall crime in Los Angeles fell for a 10th straight year in 2012, but small increases in petty thefts and homicide numbers again provoked the perennial question of how much longer the city's remarkable crime drop would continue.
Overall, crime declined by about 2% in Los Angeles, fueled by drops in many serious crimes including robbery, assault and auto thefts, according to preliminary numbers collected by the Los Angeles Police Department. The decline was smaller than in previous years because of jumps in lower-level crimes such as thefts from vehicles and personal thefts.
There were no obvious explanations for the increase in thefts. Some crime experts said the statistics suggested the years of economic hardship facing many Angelenos may have finally had an impact on crime. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck agreed but also pointed to the state's controversial prison depopulation plan as a possible factor.
The 297 killings that occurred through Thursday morning were three more than occurred during the same period last year, and made it unlikely the city would finish the year below 300 homicides — a benchmark reached in 2010 and 2011.
The statistics showed significant fluctuations in crime within neighborhoods. There were 51 homicides in the area patrolled by the LAPD's 77th Street Division — a roughly 70% increase over last year.
The adjacent Newton Division, however, saw a dramatic decrease in killings. Such spikes and drops are often attributed to particular gang rivalries or other frictions in an area, Beck said.
The figures also underscored the stark geographic disparities of where crime occurs in Los Angeles. In the wealthy Westside neighborhoods patrolled by the LAPD's West L.A. Division, there were 276 violent crimes, while the neighborhoods of South L.A. experienced about five times that number.
After a period of steady decline, many U.S. cities have begun to see upticks in crime in recent years. Criminologists said Los Angeles was one of a few to see the overall crime numbers continue to drop.
"The fact that Los Angeles has continued to decline, especially when several factors haven't been as good as they could be — it's remarkable, frankly," said Charis Kubrin, a criminologist at UC Irvine. "I'm puzzled."
Although homicides were up slightly, aggravated assaults fell by 7% and robberies were down as well. The 742 reported rapes amount to a 5% increase over last year.
Property crimes, which occur far more frequently than violent ones and therefore have a greater influence over the city's overall crime rate, were mixed. Burglaries and auto thefts were down, but other types of common thefts were up by a few percentage points.
Gang-related crimes were also down about 10%.
Kubrin, like other criminologists, said there was no easy answer to why L.A.'s crime drop had continued for so long. The Police Department's ability to battle crime, she said, deserved much of the credit, but could not on its own account for the trend. Sociologists and criminologists say other likely factors include strict sentencing laws that, until recently, increased the number of people in prison; demographic shifts; and sociological influences.
Kubrin did not place much significance in the modest rise in petty thefts, saying that it would become meaningful if it persisted and grew larger in coming years.
The decade of falling crime in Los Angeles — which continued during California's deep recession — has forced many researchers and law enforcement officials to rethink the once commonly held belief that crime was linked inextricably to the economy.
Beck, like his influential predecessor, William Bratton, has long believed that the LAPD's strategies — including using crime data to help determine how to deploy officers and launch programs — have played the decisive role in L.A.'s crime decline.
Beck used the 2012 results to echo the "cops matter, police count" mantra that Bratton used frequently.
But Beck acknowledged that economic factors probably had some influence on crime totals. In addition to personal hardships that may push people to commit crimes, cuts to the LAPD's budget played a role, Beck said. With no money to pay officers cash for overtime, the department instead has compensated them with time off. The resulting loss in staffing has been the equivalent of about 450 officers, according to department figures — a hit that has complicated crime-fighting strategies.
The implementation this year of the state's plan to relieve prison overcrowding added another stress on the police and, Beck believes, contributed to the rise in petty thefts. The so-called realignment plan has shortened the time many low-level criminals are incarcerated and lowered the level of supervision they receive after being released.
Beck conceded that the plan had not been in place long enough to gather data on its impact, but said that anecdotally, "it is impossible to ignore what realignment is doing."