By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
If someone were to tell you that the gang-related homicide rate in the San Fernando Valley more than doubled this January compared to last January, would that be a cause for concern? How about if there were only five such killings?
Yet both statements are true. Two killings in January of 2006, five in 2007. Depending on how you frame it, that’s a minor blip — or a huge wave.
Amid widespread TV and newspaper reports of a 14 percent increase in gang crime in 2006, the Los Angeles Times devotes space to calling it a “crisis.” But wait: Only a couple of months ago, the same newspaper ran a story titled “L.A. crime decreases for 5th year,” which glowingly quoted Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton taking credit.
Bratton bragged that the reduction in crime was not merely a lucky break, saying, “You can’t be lucky seven times in a row. If I was, I’d be making a living hanging out at the blackjack table.”
Meanwhile, the Daily News, citing the 14 percent gang-crime increase in 2006, has declared a “surge” in gang crime. But hyperbole on this issue is nothing new for that newspaper either. A 2004 story headlined “Homegrown Terror” states that gangs “make up less than 1 percent of the population but commit at least half the region’s homicides — taking the lives of nearly 3,100 people in Southern California since 1999, more than three times the number of U.S. casualties in the war in Iraq.”
That’s mighty rhetoric, but ultimately meaningless. The war in Iraq had been under way just one year at that point, yet the Daily News compared those 12 months to five years of gang killings in America’s second biggest city.
Against the current scary-sounding backdrop created by the mayor and the media, the city is considering a multifaceted anti-gang plan from civic activist and lawyer Connie Rice’s so-called “Advancement Project” that could, if ever fully implemented, cost up to $1 billion in public money.
It is described as “a Marshall Plan–like initiative” — yet another implication that war has broken out and L.A. residents are under a gang siege.
But does our purported gang crisis merit such a response? The L.A. Weekly asked a few experts on the subject to analyze the data — but without the City Hall–driven spin.
In an e-mail response, George Tita, an assistant professor of criminology, law and society at UC Irvine, said, “All crime is WAY DOWN from the early 1990s... It’s been falling for years, and in most cities other than L.A. it’s started to climb upward again.” Yet crime is not, Tita pointedly notes, climbing in Los Angeles — now rated the second safest big city in America.
It’s virtually impossible to glean this fact from most headlines as Villaraigosa, District Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and Bratton push the idea of a rapidly rising threat from gangs. Tita says he isn’t suggesting that 2006’s gang-crime increase is irrelevant, but it’s important to recognize the use of “a selective statistic.”
Kent Bausman, director of criminology at Maryville University, has a similar take, saying, “I mean, you talk about an epidemic? [Los Angeles] had an epidemic 15 years ago, but nothing like that today.”
As he points out, the city’s murder rate in 2005 was 12.6 per 100,000 residents. By comparison, the high-crime year of 1992 saw a rate more than double that — 30.3 killings per 100,000 L.A. residents.
Those overall murder rates don’t necessarily correlate with gang-related crime, as the LAPD takes pains to point out. According to its statistics, overall crime is indeed down, but gang-crime rates seem to be going up.
Which leads to an obvious question: How does the LAPD classify a crime as being committed by or against gang members?
Susan Phillips, a professor at Pitzer College, says the answer to that question is both vague and changeable, based on LAPD records she has studied.
“Starting in 1992, there were around 60,000 gang members” in Los Angeles, she says. “Then in 2001 begins a gradual decline, and now, suddenly, we have only 40,000.” Asks Phillips, “So where did 20,000 gang members go? Just because somebody is under an injunction or in prison doesn’t mean they have stopped being a gang member.” Adds Phillips sarcastically, “Suddenly, we don’t have as much of a gang problem as we did before.”
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