In the weeks leading up to the tepid re-election of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa last month, Bill Bratton, the statistics-driven chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, appeared on TV in a political advertisement paid for by the Villaraigosa campaign. He cited a seemingly amazing figure about this city’s livability.
“Crime is down to levels of the 1950s,” said a confident-looking Bratton, who wore a black jacket and dark tie as he sat in an office conference room with downtown views.
Flashing across the screen as he delivered the line with his heavy Boston accent was a Los Angeles Daily News headline from early 2008 borrowed by the Villaraigosa campaign to further emphasize the chief’s claim. It read in bold, black letters: “Safest streets since ’56.”
On March 2, 24 hours before Election Day, Villaraigosa and Bratton teamed up again. This time, they appeared together at a morning press conference at the Police Academy in Elysian Park, where a statement from the Mayor’s Office made the rounds and trumpeted a “citywide crime-rate drop to the lowest level since 1956, the total number of homicides fall[ing] to a 38-year low. Gang homicides were down more than 24 percent in 2008.”
The 1956 number was simply incredible — Los Angeles had time-warped back more than 50 years to the era of the Beat Generation, Elvis Presley and Howdy Doody, when serious crime was still so titillating that murder trials featuring unknown faces were followed like big celebrity events. It wasn’t the first time Bratton made the claim — the chief had also made the bold comparison in 2006 and again in 2008, lugging it out to warn voters that the low crime rate could be jeopardized if they didn’t pass the City Council’s telephone-utility-tax referendum, a phone tax that Villaraigosa and Bratton said was needed for the hiring of more cops.
The press barely challenged the notion that Los Angeles has somehow been transported back five decades, and some instead focused on Bratton’s widely criticized political endorsement of the mayor — an unsettling and, many people believe, unethical move for a hired hand like a chief of police to engage in. One of the first to criticize Bratton’s claim was long-shot mayoral candidate Walter Moore. Moore couldn’t wrap his mind around the idea that Los Angeles is now as safe as the year that the L.A. Angels played baseball at a now-destroyed civic landmark — the beautiful old Wrigley Field in then-quiet, then-tidy South-Central Los Angeles.
“I’ve talked to people who grew up here in the 1950s,” Moore argued to nodding heads during a February debate between several mayoral candidates, held in the hilly, suburbanlike community of Sunland-Tujunga (sans Villaraigosa). “And believe me, nobody in L.A. remembers crime in the 1950s being like it is today.”
Moore isn’t the only one who finds it fishy, and just plain strange, to attempt to paint the city as similar to a time when 2.3 million residents lived in a far more suburban and far less dense metropolis, one in which residents often did not bother to lock their doors.
“It’s a silly comparison,” Malcolm Klein, professor emeritus of sociology at USC and a gang-crime expert, says bluntly. An author of numerous books on gang crime, Klein says that when Bratton starts publicly comparing crime levels of the 1950s to today, “You’re not listening to a chief of police, you’re listening to a politician.”
The vast difference between today and that distant era can be seen in a Los Angeles Times news story published in January 1956, one that now seems quaint. The reporter breathlessly wrote of “Los Angeles’ bloodiest gang-rival fight in recent years,” a fight involving 25 gang members going at each other with “beer openers, knives, clubs, chains and bottles.” The Alpine Gang made a visit to the “clubhouse” of the Lancers, where everyone duked it out. Some people were stitched up, but no one was killed.
Klein says Bratton is clearly trying to spin Los Angeles as harkening back to the 1950s under his watch for “bureaucratic and political reasons. It shouldn’t be necessary for the LAPD to manipulate statistics like this,” says the professor. “Good researchers don’t do this kind of thing.”
Aaron Epstein, who worked on Hollywood Boulevard in 1956 and still owns property on the Walk of Fame, says, “People felt safe back then. We didn’t have prostitutes on the corners, we didn’t have dope dealers in the streets, and we didn’t have gangs.”
Andrew Karmen, a sociology professor at the highly respected John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, who examined L.A.’s crime rates of 1956 and 2007, says, “Looking at murders and robberies — the crime that people really care about — we’re not back yet to 1956 crime levels.”