LA may not be riding a crime wave, criminologists say

LAPD crime tape blocks public access during a recent investigation.
LAPD crime tape blocks public access during a recent investigation. Erika Aguilar/KPCC

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti this week announced the LAPD is doubling the size of its elite Metropolitan Division to allow the department to saturate high-crime neighborhoods with more cops after a 24 percent spike in violent crime and 11 percent jump in property crimes.

But criminologists said it's far from clear the city is facing a new crime wave after decades of decline.

“The smart money would say things are pretty stable in Los Angeles,” said UC Berkeley Law Professor Frank Zimring. He pointed to the long-term decline in the murder rate, a better measure of trends than the current short-term spike.

Zimring also noted that last year’s uptick in crime reported by the LAPD was in part the result of an improvement in the way the department logged aggravated assaults, change prompted by an investigation by the Los Angeles Times. He added this year’s increase is only a few months old.

“You cannot confidently conclude that there has been a big increase in crime in Los Angeles,” he said.

“The percentage increase is somewhat alarming,” said UC Irvine Criminology Professor George Tita. “But when your base rate falls so low, it doesn’t take as many crimes to drive a high percentage increase.”

Over the past two decades, Los Angeles has seen a historic drop in crime. In the early 1990s,  the murder count topped 1,000 annually. Last year, there were fewer than 300.

Pinpointing why crime goes up or down is nearly impossible, said Zimring, who has been studying trends for more than three decades.

“Oh boy," he said. "I wish I knew.”

Major changes in policies or demographics can have an effect on crime. Older people commit less crime. But the city has neither changed policing strategies nor gotten significantly older recently.

Inflation and unemployment have been long thought to contribute to more crime. But criminologists said the Great Recession of 2008 failed to slow declining crime rates.

For several years now, criminologists and police chiefs have been wondering how far crime rates can fall in big cities like New York and Los Angeles.

“Maybe places like Los Angeles are scraping the bottom of how low crime can go,” Zimring said.

But there are other theories.

“The elephant in the room right now in California is prison realignment policies,” Zimring said. “It's unclear what effect that’s having.”

Under realignment, non-violent and non-serious offenders serve less time and are locked up in local jails – not state prison. In addition, Proposition 47, approved by voters last November, reduced jail time for a series of offenses including simple drug possession.

Beck and other law enforcement leaders suspect these policies are contributing to more crime, especially thefts and burglaries. Criminologists said Thursday: it’s too early to tell.

“We don’t have good data yet,” said Criminology Professor Richard Rosenfeld at the University of Missouri, St. Louis.

“You’re going to need a couple of years and pretty careful examination with a magnifying glass,” agreed Zimring.

Rosenfeld said criminologists are looking at increases in crime in various cities, including St. Louis. One intriguing idea: the backlash to the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson and other high profile police killings is making officers less aggressive.

“There is an idea that police officers are more stressed, and that can lead to de-policing,” Rosenfeld said. “Police officers are not as vigorous in their policing.

“We also hear about emboldened criminals,” he added.

But again, there is no data yet to back this up.

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