The drop in crime in Los Angeles since Antonio Villaraigosa became mayor in 2005 has been astounding:
- Total violent crime plummeted 40.2 percent.
- Gang crime fell 37.5 percent.
- Total property crime dropped 23.6 percent.
Figuring out why requires going back to the day after Villaraigosa was elected. The new mayor-elect gathered with a group of mostly African-American supporters in the Crenshaw District.
“Earlier this morning, I met with [LAPD] Chief Bill Bratton to discuss our mutual support for one another,” he told the crowd.
The irony was thick. Villaraigosa defeated incumbent Mayor Jim Hahn in part because of Hahn’s decision to dismiss Bratton’s African-American predecessor, Bernard Parks, a beloved figure in the black community. Hahn lost his once bedrock support among African-Americans.
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Hahn refused to renew Parks’ contract largely because police morale was low, crime was rising, and he was reluctant to embrace reforms required by the U.S. Justice Department.
In a sense, Villaraigosa lucked out.
“I think he was the beneficiary of the very tough decision that Jim Hahn made,” said UCLA Adjunct Associate Professor of Anthropology Jorja Leap, who studies crime in L.A. “I don’t think Jim Hahn is given enough credit.”
Villaraigosa embraced Bratton, who receives a lot of credit for turning the LAPD around and delivering the dramatic drops in crime by introducing new technology and cooperating more with federal agencies. The mayor also deserves praise for working with the chief to repair long-frayed police-community relations, said Alex Alonso, who monitors gangs and policing on his StreetGangs.com website.
“Chief Bratton and Villaraigosa showed up at churches, showed up at community meetings,” Alonso said. “That’s definitely a plus. Going to the ghettto.”
When LAPD riot police beat up protesters and journalists in MacArthur Park during a 2007 immigrant rights march, Villaraigosa joined Bratton in condemning officers and ordering a full investigation.
Four years ago, when Bratton stepped down, Villaraigosa won kudos for appointing another reform-minded chief, LAPD veteran Charlie Beck. He calls Villaraigosa “the perfect mayor” for a chief.
“I can honestly say that the mayor never directed me to do anything,” Beck said. “He would always ask, ‘Charlie how do you see this?’”
Beck recalled Villaraigosa showing up to support the LAPD in 2011 when riot officers removed Occupy L.A. encampments around City Hall. “It's easy to say in retrospect, ‘Well, that was no big deal. Nothing bad happened,’” Beck said. “There was huge potential for things to go wrong. Most mayors would insulate themselves by not being there."
Journalist Joe Domanick wrote a book on the LAPD, “To Protect and To Serve,” and is in the process of writing another. He said Villaraigosa was smart to leave Bratton and Beck alone.
Credit for staying out of the way
“I think he gets credit in that he stayed out of the way,” Domanick said of Villaraigosa, a one-time president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “All he had to do was support the two best police chiefs the LAPD has ever had.”
Under Bratton and Beck, the LAPD eliminated its backlog of DNA evidence, began installing videos in patrol cars and hired more minorities. A majority of its officers are now Latino, black or Asian-American.
Bratton first proposed it, but Villaraigosa became a champion of increasing the size of the LAPD from about 9,100 to 10,000 officers — even as the city faced devastating deficits. To accomplish this, the mayor convinced the city council to raise various trash and parking fees and cut other services.
After leaving the LAPD, Parks was elected to the City Council. He chaired the budget committee and opposed the LAPD increase.
“We grew the police department at the expense of almost everything,” Parks said. "The Recreation and Parks Department, for example, lost a third of its 2,100 employees over the past six years."
The city recently hit its goal of a 10,000-strong force by moving officers from the General Services Department. But now, city officials say, the police department may have to shrink as budget deficits persist.
Villaraigosa has argued a larger police department comes first, and that the proof is in the numbers. The murder rate hasn’t been as low in L.A. since the Eisenhower Administration.
Not only more police
Public safety has improved under Villaraigosa, but not just because there are more police.
Four years ago, the mayor moved the city’s gang programs into his office and adopted a more holistic approach that includes police, schools and community programs. The city now focuses its resources on L.A.'s dozen worst gang zones, instead of dividing them across council districts.
Villaraigosa initially was reluctant, but ended up embracing the idea and selling it to the council, said Deputy Mayor Guillermo Cespedes, who heads the office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development, or GRYD.
"That was a huge political fight he took on,” Cespedes said.
GRYD is effective in part because it employs people with credibility on the streets: former gang members who’ve turned their lives around, and people like Cathy Wooten, a Watts resident who’s lost two sons to gang violence. As a crisis intervention worker, she now collaborates with the once-aloof LAPD.
“You could try to talk to them about the situation that’s going on, and they didn’t want to hear it,” she said of police she used to encounter. “Now, I can talk to them without being rudely interrupted.”
UCLA’s Leap has high praise for the GRYD program, originally devised by civil rights attorney Connie Rice. It takes a more sophisticated approach to evaluating at-risk kids and joins police and interventionists in the effort to reduce those risks.
“This was nothing less than revolutionary,” Leap said.
Villaraigosa, a one-time high school dropout from East L.A., regularly visits gang reduction sites, Cespedes said.
“I love seeing him on the streets because I kinda see a different person than you see at press conferences,” he said. “Folks in the neighborhood get him, and he gets them.”
While she’d like to see more funding for the GRYD program (it receives about $25 million annually), Kayle Shilling of the Violence Prevention Coalition of Greater L.A. said she’s glad Villaraigosa embraced the gang strategy along with more police — even if it was four years into his administration.
“There are a lot of different approaches in Los Angeles and I think it just takes folks a little while to get up to speed,” Shilling said. “I think he’s landed in a good place.”
Villaraigosa can hardly take sole credit for the historic crime drop that began before he took office. Community groups — some led by former gang members — are more involved than ever in reducing violence.
“You have a lot of other things going on outside of City Hall and outside of government,” said Alonso of StreetGangs.com. “You have nonprofit organizations, you have a lot of gang intervention workers. The mindset is changing within South L.A.”
But with Villaraigosa’s help, the mindset on how to tackle crime has changed at City Hall, too.
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