The crime rate continues to fall across the nation and throughout much of Southern California. In Los Angeles, the homicide rate is at a 40-year low. Last year, 314 people were murdered, down 18 percent from the year before. In 1992, at the peak of violence in the city, nearly 1,200 people were murdered.
At the offices of the LAPD’s Criminal Gang Homicide Group in South L.A., Detective Chris Barling recalled a triple murder in the early 1990s.
Gang members targeted what they thought was the girlfriend of a rival. Only she wasn’t.
“They came by that car in broad daylight, shot the car up completely, killed the three girls in the car," said Barling.
"I can remember being one of the first officers at the scene and hundreds of people in the neighborhood responding to the car, trying to pull the bodies out of the car."
The number of murders exploded, said the veteran detective, as rival drug gangs fought over territory amid the crack cocaine epidemic.
“Routinely in the '90s, with a partner and myself, we could handle anywhere up to 17 homicide cases a year," said Barling. Last year, detective teams handled about six cases each.
Detectives in the field offer many reasons for the ongoing drop in murders – the end of the crack epidemic for one.
But they also cite longer prison sentences and a focused effort by local, state and federal authorities to go after the most violent gangs that account for upwards of two-thirds of murders.
"I think we’ve arrested and put away a lot of the main killers, especially in South Central L.A.," said Detective Young Mun.
Technology’s helped, too – surveillance cameras and DNA evidence help identify suspects who previously might have gone on to murder again.
Officer John Ferreria said people are also more willing to help an LAPD that’s improved community relations. The detective-in-training has been on the force 13 years.
“Back then when I first used to arrive at crime scenes such as a homicide scene, it was difficult," because witnesses wouldn't cooperate.
Ferreria's partner George Gutierrez said “now, citizens have had enough."
At the same time, Gutierrez said one of their biggest challenges remains in persuading witnesses afraid of gang retaliation to cooperate.
Asked about gang intervention workers, the seven-year veteran cop says they’ve helped prevent murders too.
“If you have someone on the civilian side who can easily go in there and talk to them and get to the root of what the feud is, it's possibly one of the many factors.”
As a dog barked ferociously, Ferreria walked up to a house in his pressed shirt and tie – a nine millimeter tucked into a holster against his slacks. He was searching for a murder witness.
The one time anti-gang officer said gang members themselves may have decided to steer away from murder.
Ferreria said he’s heard that some gang leaders have ordered followers to stop shooting so much, so police would get off their backs.
“They realize hey, you know we're not doing so well selling these drugs if we have the cops out here all the time," said Ferreria. "I spoke to some gang members and they do admit that."
Detective Barling at South L.A. homicide headquarters said all murders, not just gang related ones, are down.
“Obviously the harder area to reduce to a certain degree you would think is domestic violence because they seem more random."
But Barling said even those have declined.
“Ya know we do a lot better job of not tolerating abuse from a spouse to another spouse and we do a lot better job in helping a woman who may be being terrorized by a spouse or boyfriend to getting her the help."
Barling said he’s wary of boasting about a lower murder rate.
That can change at any time, he said – especially when gangs still claim turf by walking up, asking that dreaded question, and shooting young men.
“It may be just ‘where you from?'" he said. "And what the answer to that response, it doesn’t matter. That part never has really changed.”
Like many though, Detective Barling hopes the city will never return to the bloody 1980s and 1990s when people in some neighborhoods placed their children in bathtubs to keep them safe.