By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
When he arrived in Los Angeles in 2002, Bratton seemed poised to launch a similar renaissance. Within two years, the Boston-bred police chief delivered a bold pitch to the civic leaders of Los Angeles: Give the LAPD 3,000 more officers, and the city could make an equally dramatic dent in crime. With a force of 12,500, the city could cut its homicide rate in half, Bratton declared.
The presentation ignited an intense debate over public safety, focused primarily on tax hikes and municipal budget cuts. Yet no one thought to ask the follow-up question. Why half? Why not 60 percent or 75 or even 80? That line of thinking leads to the most audacious question of all: Could Los Angeles, with the proper focus, bring an end to murder?
“Don’t I wish,” says Bratton, sounding only slightly dismissive as he sits in his sixth-floor office downtown. Yet the chief also acknowledges that New York’s steadily declining murder rate has forced policymakers to ask, How low can it go? Soon after taking over the LAPD, Bratton prohibited the term “repressible crime,” saying the phrase wrongly suggests that some crimes can’t be stopped. Now, the LAPD operates on the assumption that every crime is preventable. So, does that mean we can contemplate an end to murder?
The concept sounds impossible. Murder has been with us since the story of Cain and Abel and long before that. Even in New York, the homicide rate inched upward in 2006. With victory on the horizon, the nation’s largest city seemed to deliver a cruel lesson: The end of murder is beyond our grasp.
Yet it is also tantalizingly within reach. In Los Angeles, the fatal shooting of a 14-year-old girl in the neighborhood known as Harbor Gateway caused many in this new year to talk openly again about ways of protecting every child, every family from killers. With the LAPD identifying the case as a hate crime, politicians, community leaders — even the head of the FBI — descended on the slain girl’s neighborhood to push for change. The city desires an end to murder. What it gets, however, is a yearning for peace that slowly evaporates in the months after each slaying, as the political class moves on to the next urgent emergency.
On most days, police don’t race out on patrol trying to stop murder. Instead, they seek out lesser offenses — a drug sale, a beating, the robbery of an iPod — and hope that along the way, they may stop a murder too. To end murder here, taxpayers would have to be willing to devote hundreds of millions of dollars to seemingly intractable crime problems, like the scourge of gangs in places such as Wilmington, Venice and Canoga Park. They would have to address the frequent killings between friends and family — cases that cry out for a focus on childhood trauma, schoolyard bullies and mental illness.
To really understand murder, one must be bracingly clinical, sifting through data and studying patterns. Yet one must also accept it as an inherently mysterious, some would say unthinkable, act. The huge victory in New York is for many the biggest mystery of all, a subject of blistering debate between battle-scarred police officers and skeptical criminologists.
Bratton, for his part, says aggressive strategies — going after repeat offenders, installing cameras in high-crime neighborhoods, moving many officers to the biggest problems — have already helped Los Angeles cut crime by double digits and homicides by nearly one-fourth since 2002. Some experts see other influences as well, from the gentrification of low-income neighborhoods to passage of the “Three Strikes” sentencing law.
Yet clearly, adding more cops is a potent factor, maybe the most potent of all. When the LAPD added officers in the mid-1990s, homicides dropped. When the force shrank in the late 1990s, the killing went back up. When more officers were slowly hired after 2001, murders went down again.
New York had an even more dramatic experience. In 1991, the city’s elected officials raised taxes, using the proceeds to add 5,000 officers and boosting spending at the NYPD by a third. Within five years, New York had cut its murder rate in half. The department then expanded the department further, by adding 8,000 officers from the city’s transit and housing authority.
“We don’t know much about why crime goes up and why crime goes down, but there’s some pretty good evidence that suggests: more cops, less crime,” says George Tita, assistant professor of criminology at UC Irvine. “L.A. is clearly understaffed, when it comes to the number of police officers.”
“We know how to drive crime to zero, and that’s to put an officer on every corner,” Tita explains. “But who wants to live in a community that’s basically martial law? Nobody. And it’s unsustainable. Not only does the community not want it, but we can’t afford it.” He paused. “But more police would definitely help.”
Los Angeles is a city that will break your heart. You can live down the street from families with bright, enthusiastic kids — the kind who skateboard, listen to music and never join gangs — and discover that they never bothered to finish high school. You can walk out of a museum where you paid $22 to see an exhibit, then wrestle with your conscience as a homeless man asks for money. The city fails, and then fails again.