Crime & Justice

Violent crime up for second straight year in Los Angeles

Caution tape marks off the Wilshire station on Tuesday, April 8, 2014.
Caution tape marks off the Wilshire station on Tuesday, April 8, 2014.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC

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New data from the LAPD shows violent crime in the city of Los Angeles rose 10 percent in 2016.

Violent crime, defined as homicides, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults, jumped 38 percent over the past two years after a more than a decade-long decline.

It’s important to note the numbers remain at historic lows, say police officials. There were 294 murders in the city last year – 11 more than the year before.  In 1992, when gang violence overwhelmed the LAPD and witnesses in minority communities were reluctant to talk to what was viewed as a racist police force, the department tallied a staggering 1,063 homicides.

Criminologists also point out the increases can be misleading because the numbers had dropped so low in previous years.

A closer look at the numbers reveals the number of reported rapes in the city fell by nearly 4 percent last year. The data show double digit percentage increases in robberies and aggravated assaults, which drove the jump in violent crime.

Robberies – defined as taking property by force or by fear - rose to nearly 10,000 citywide – up 14 percent from 2015 and 29 percent from 2014.

Aggravated assaults – defined as attacking a person with the intent of inflicting severe injury – rose about 10 percent from 2015 and 49 percent from 2014.

Criminologists say it’s too early to declare a crime wave in Los Angeles, given the raw numbers remain low, and the increases occurred over a relatively short period of time. Another year or two of data will provide a more accurate picture. Until 2014, crime was falling.

“It’s hard to interpret” what’s happening during upticks like these, said U.C. Berkeley Law Professor Malcolm Feeley. “A statistician would say they are random noise.”

Property crimes are also up – by 4 percent. That’s largely driven by a 14 percent increase in motor vehicle thefts last year. Since 2014, car thefts have jumped about 34 percent.

In neighborhoods patrolled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which includes all unincorporated areas and 42 cities, homicides rose 7.25 percent from 193 in 2015 to 208 last year.

Sheriff's officials said they are still counting up all of the other crimes. But violent crime overall rose approximately 8.5 percent, and property crimes increased a little over 5 percent, according to data provided by the department's Public Information Officer Nicole Nishida.

Many police leaders – including LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell - continue to blame newer California laws that shortened some prison sentences as one big cause of the increase.

Proposition 47, approved by voters in 2014, reduced six felony offenses (including drug possession and theft of property valued under $950) to misdemeanors. Instead of state prison, people convicted of those crimes are sentenced to shorter sentences in county jails. Thousands of those already in prison were released early.

Under Governor Brown’s prison realignment plan approved by the legislature in 2011, thousands of people convicted of non-violent, non-serious and non-sexual crimes have been sent to local jails instead of prison – often to serve shorter sentences.

“Under that theory, you should have had a massive crime reduction during prison realignment,” said U.C. Berkeley Criminologist Frank Zimring. Instead, crime rose as an estimated 30,000 state prisoners were sent to county jails. Most ended up back on the streets earlier than originally sentenced, according to a study by the Public Policy Institute of California.

There are other theories among cops. In the San Fernando Valley, police have seen more drug-related homicides, said Commander Kris Pitcher.

“Anecdotally, I can tell you we have experienced a higher number of meth related, narcotics related homicides as well as domestic violence related homicides,” Pitcher said. Someone using methamphetamine who is involved in a domestic dispute can be a deadly combination.

Zimring says the homicide rate is the best measure of crime because there is no fluctuation in how police interpret a murder. Aggravated assaults and robberies are sometimes subject to interpretation and could be downgraded to a simple assault or shoplifting, for example.

So why is some crime on the rise in Los Angeles?

“I know it’s a fair question,” Zimring said, “And the answer is we don’t know.”