By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Between 2003 and 2007, New York City saw an 18 percent decrease in killings, Seattle had a homicide drop of 30 percent, and Portland saw a 17 percent drop. Hundreds of cities and towns have seen drops in rapes since 2003, three years after the launch of the popular CSI: Crime Scene Investigation series that began promoting the notion that immediate DNA testing is now the norm. During that period, there have been 46 percent fewer rapes in New York, 49 percent fewer in Seattle, 8 percent fewer in Portland, 26 percent fewer in San Diego, and 19 percent fewer in Los Angeles.
Says Greene, director of the nonprofit criminal-research group Justice Strategies, who crunched those FBI numbers for the Weekly, “Nobody really knows what has happened. When crime goes down, police chiefs are very quick to claim credit. When crime goes up, they blame the economy.”
Greene adds cheekily, “Bratton is outstanding — in his willingness to show off his skills.”
But at one point during his recent interview with L.A. Weekly, Bratton appeared to try to distance himself from his and Villaraigosa’s bold claims about L.A.’s new era of safety, whipping out a pamphlet produced by his people, titled “End of the Year Crime Snapshot — 2008.”
The chief, who sat at the head of a long conference table, dressed in uniform and flanked by LAPD CompStat detective Jeff Godown and LAPD public-information director Mary Grady, explained that the LAPD is no longer citing the 1956 per capita statistic.
Now, LAPD is instead claiming the city is really only enjoying 1961 crime levels.
Villaraigosa “is referring to [crime rates] a couple of years back,” says Bratton, handing over the pamphlet. “This is the most recent one we’re working with.” Grady then offered, “The mayor may still be stuck on the 1956 date, which we used a couple of years ago. That’s a sound bite he likes to use.”
Bratton nodded and said, “I’ll actually ask him” to instead claim that crime is back to 1961 levels.
But how different is it to imagine that Los Angeles today is as safe as it was in 1961, still an innocent time in which mothers parked their baby carriages on the sidewalks while they shopped, and witnesses to crimes promptly called police?
Bratton acts exasperated, saying, “If you or [my critics] are getting hung up on that, knock yourself out. You think anything you’re going to write, or anything they write, is going to influence me one way or another? Sorry. We’re pretty good at this. We have a department that’s damn good at it, and we report this stuff more intimately than just about any department in America. We report it more publicly. We report to the Police Commission just about every week.”
Karmen basically agrees. “He puts out more information than the NYPD,” he says. “Let’s give him credit for that.”
In late January, with the re-election campaign of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in full swing, the chief appeared with his boss at the Rampart Division Station. The mayor insisted, according to the Daily News, “Although crime is down to its lowest level since I was a 3-year-old in 1956, and gang homicides are down to levels not seen since 1969, we are losing too many youths to senseless violence.”
Then, on March 2, hours before Villaraigosa’s re-election, in which he earned a surprisingly weak 55.5 percent of the vote against candidates with no name recognition or money, Villaraigosa and Bratton attended an electioneering press conference. Villaraigosa’s press release again trotted out the notion that “since initiating the city’s [police officer] buildup, L.A. has seen the citywide crime rate drop to its lowest level since 1956, the total number of homicides fall to a 38-year low. Gang homicides were down more than 24 percent in 2008.”
In fact, the key points claimed by the mayor in his statement were meaningless, a result of playing with numbers complicated by further playing with numbers. L.A. is, demonstrably, not as safe as 1956 — or 1961, the chief’s latest claim.
And gang homicides? They dropped in 2008, fulfilling a prediction of some criminologists, who saw Villaraigosa and Bratton’s claims of a gang crisis in 2007 as overwrought and premature. Gang homicides have been on a downward trend since 2002, and in 2008, gang homicides merely returned to the existing pattern of lower gang violence. But it can be made to look like a huge “24 percent” drop in gang killings when Villaraigosa, in a carefully prepared press release, compares the 2008 numbers solely to the short-lived gang-crime spike in 2007, which he and Bratton sold, at the time, as a crisis.
Matt Szabo, Villaraigosa’s spokesman, tries, in an e-mail, to further explain this badly mangled data. “We are only guilty of understating the drop in crime,” he writes. And since “crime had, in fact, been down to its lowest per capita since 1956,” the use of the Daily News headline in a Villaraigosa campaign ad was “accurate.” Szabo also adds, “The chief did not correct the mayor during the news conferences because the mayor was correct.”
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