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In 1956, L.A. had 3,548 robberies, or one robbery for every 648 residents. According to the LAPD Statistical Digest, in 2007 there were 13,467 robberies, or one robbery for every 297 people. That’s more than twice as bad as in 1956, a fact that residents intuitively feel. Angelenos know they aren’t living in the days of Leave It to Beaver. In 2007, robberies under Bratton would have to be slashed by more than half, to 6,173, for his braggadocio to be accurate. It’s not.
By far the most serious drop in crime since 1956 has been that of rape — and Bratton and the LAPD have, controversially, had nothing to do with that stunning turnaround.
There were 1,056 rapes in L.A. in 1956, compared to 905 rapes in the much bigger and much tougher Los Angeles of 2007 — a huge reduction per person. According to Jonathan Simon, professor of law and co-chair of the Berkeley Center of Criminal Justice at UC Berkeley, rape levels around the country have plummeted over the past decade, in large part due to DNA technology, which has put the fear of God into would-be rapists.
Some experts also believe rapists realize modern women are more likely to fight back. “Because of DNA testing,” says Simon, “rape has now become a crime where the odds of getting caught have become very high. A lot of people know about DNA tests, and it keeps them from doing certain things.”
On this score, however, Bratton has not shined, and he cannot take even modest credit for the drop in rapes — data that has lowered the overall crime numbers during his reign. In fact, Bratton’s DNA-testing policies and efforts have badly lagged behind New York City’s and even Orange County’s.
Bratton has consistently failed to win sufficient funds for the LAPD’s rape DNA-testing lab, instead pushing the City Council and Villaraigosa to provide him money for glitzier things, like his antiterrorism program. During Bratton’s years of less-than-groundbreaking interest in rape DNA testing, in fact, the chief allowed a massive backlog of 4,423 untested rape kits to pile up in huge freezers near Parker Center police headquarters. (See L.A. Weekly’s “DNA Deep Freeze,” by Christine Pelisek, March 18, 2009.) Last year, Bratton’s controversial foot-dragging on testing the long-frozen rape kits earned him a spate of negative headlines about the scandal.
Yet now, incredibly to some critics, Bratton is lumping the big drop in rapes in L.A. — clearly a national trend and not an LAPD achievement — with the other crime data, masking the fact that murder and robbery are far worse scourges than in 1956. In short, Bratton is badly misrepresenting how safe L.A. really is.
Aside from the drop in rape, there are also fewer burglaries per person in L.A. today: one for every 204 Angelenos in 2007, and one for every 100 people in 1956, And larceny, a form of theft, is dropping: one for every 51 people in 1956, and one for every 69 people in 2007.
Simon again explains that these improvements are a national trend, not special to L.A., driven by the worsening economics of fencing today’s incredibly cheap consumer products. Because thieves don’t get much cash for stealing a stereo or a TV, they figure, why bother? “A used TV set in 1956 got a lot more money than a used TV set in 2007,” says Simon. Instead, he adds, criminals today stick with robberies, holding up victims for cash at ATM machines, for example.
Many crime experts say that Bratton and other police chiefs who aggressively take credit for existing megatrends are clearly misleading the public. Levine, the sociology professor and drug-crime expert at Queens College, points to a laundry list of reasons for the drops in crime that began years before Bratton moved to Los Angeles — including the unexpectedly low-crime behavior of many immigrant groups, whose members want to “keep their noses clean” in a new country, the economic boom that began in the late 1990s and subtle changes in the way police report crime.
Bratton, the former top cop in Boston and New York City, seems to be abusing crime statistics partly to prove that his department deserves more money amidst budget cuts, and partly to maneuver into a position where he can take personal credit. “L.A. is Bratton’s second chance to prove he’s the best police chief there ever was,” says Levine.