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
Schuessler even fondly remembers Los Angeles Police Department Chief William Parker, who was leading the force in 1956. Dismissing the recent chiefs in Los Angeles, Schuessler says, “I think the best chief was Parker. He was tough.”
But even then, the city’s top cop played political games with crime statistics. On April 15, 1956, the Los Angeles Times took Chief Parker to task for citing a jump in crime rates to bolster his contention that a new, landmark California State Supreme Court ruling, which found that illegal search-and-seizures by police officers were no longer admissible as evidence in court, was handcuffing the LAPD’s ability to keep the streets safe.
That didn’t sit right with the Times, which in 1956 looked at L.A.’s crime statistics over a period of years — before and after the Supreme Court ruling — and concluded that the state’s highest court was not unleashing an out-of-control crime wave. “Statistics are something like those crazy mirrors that distort images,” the Times article of that era read. “They can be made to prove almost anything, depending on which ones you look at and how you look at them.”
The words the Times published seem to apply to another LAPD chief — and his use of crime statistics today.
“If people don’t feel as safe as 1956,” says Karmen, the sociology professor and crime statistician at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who is no fan of Bratton’s, “they’re right to feel that way. We’re not back at those levels.”
Yes, there was crime. Gangs existed in 1956, but they relied heavily on knives or chains as weapons. The film industry was entertwined with organized crime and stickup men knocked over local banks. But the phrase “random-shooting victim” was unknown, “home-invasion robbery” had not been coined — and shopping centers and schools didn’t need security guards. In 1957, a radio news broadcast about a hostage situation at the Beacon Café in Inglewood was considered so out-of-this-world that a throng of nattily dressed onlookers showed up across from 930 West Manchester to gawk and point as cops in black suits and thin ties dragged away the would-be robbers.
Despite the stretch being made by the mayor and Bratton — Villaraigosa’s best-known employee, and now his political acolyte and campaign backer — crime existed on a fundamentally different level in 1956. And that’s what has so many people scratching their heads over Bratton’s curious slant.
Bratton bases his claim on numbers that compare “Part I” crimes of today — homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and auto theft — with “Part I” crimes of past years on a per capita basis. Theoretically, holding up the crimes committed today per 10,000 Los Angeles residents against the crimes of yesteryear per 10,000 Los Angeles residents allows these two eras, separated by five decades, to be directly compared.
On January 5, 2006, for example, Bratton sent out a press release noting that the 2005 “preliminary crime rate” was “364 Part I crimes per 10,000 residents.”
“You’d have to look back to 1956 to find a comparable crime rate for Los Angeles,” the chief said in the press release. He did it again in 2008, this time saying that L.A.’s crime rate in 2007 had repeated the amazing achievement of 2005, once again dropping so low that it matched 1956.
But Karmen, a critic of Bratton’s when the latter was commissioner of the New York City Police Department, and author of the book New York Murder Mystery: The True Story Behind the Crime Crash of the 1990s, says such a statistical comparison is “meaningless.”
The professor says Bratton fails to compare the seven categories of Part I crime of 1956 to the same seven categories of today’s Part I crime on a one-on-one basis. For example, the old and new homicide rates should be compared directly with one another, and the old and new robbery rates should be compared directly with one another — rather than the lumped-together data Bratton is trying to compare. Although far more accurate, even Karmen’s approach gives you on paper a comparison that utterly fails to account for the reality that none of the bad guys owned AK-47s in 1956 and teenagers rarely murdered one another.
Karmen, who at the Weekly’s request reviewed a detailed annual record of crime statistics for 1956 and 2007 — which were reported in the official LAPD Statistical Digest — says two of the most violent categories, homicide and robbery, show Bratton’s claims are simply untrue.
In 1956, Karmen points out, when L.A.’s population was 2.3 million, there were 104 homicides. That’s one killing for every 22,115 people. In 2007, with an L.A. population of 4 million, there were 396 homicides. That’s one killing for every 10,101 people — about twice the rate of slayings. For L.A. to be as safe as in 1956, homicides under Bratton would have had to plunge in 2007 to a mere 180 killings — the kind of rarity that would be so noticeable, weeks would pass without a murder, residents might actually start feeling safe and TV news crews would have to find something else to cover.
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