When Alex Thompson, bicycling advocate and founder of BikesideLA.org, read LAPD Chief Charlie Beck's response last week to a citywide hit-and-run epidemic that LAPD had never acknowledged, Thompson was stunned to find what he saw as pages of spin.
“The whole report is framed defensively,” Thompson says, “and that undermines the integrity of the report from the outset. They're more interested in proving the L.A. Weekly wrong.”
In January, following the Weekly's cover story revealing that Los Angeles is mired in a long-running hit-and-run crisis, with drivers fleeing 48 percent of all crashes in 2009, City Hall asked Beck to report on how his department planned to address the crime wave. Nationally, just 11 percent of crashes are hit-and-runs.
L.A. suffers a staggering 20,000 hit-and-runs annually. Of those, hit-and-run drivers kill or badly maim about 22 bicyclists, 40 motorists and 92 pedestrians each year. According to LAPD's own data, buried in a vague graph on page 8 of Beck's new report, another 324 bicyclists, 1,004 pedestrians and 2,293 motorists are injured less severely each year.
The Dec. 6 Weekly article, “L.A.'s Bloody Hit-and-Run Epidemic,” found that unless a victim died, LAPD's investigations too often were marked by evidence-gathering lapses and disinterest. Some fed-up victims — such as noted bicyclist Don Ward, run to the ground by a Jaguar near Griffith Park — conduct their own investigations.
Yet Beck and his predecessor, William Bratton, have failed to seriously track hit-and-run data — as they do, meticulously, with other crime. Beck, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the City Council appeared to have no idea this epidemic existed.
Beck's report spends most of its 16 pages refocusing critics away from L.A.'s failures and toward the hit-and-run situations in Chicago, Houston and New York. Critics now are questioning the report's unorthodox methodology, squishy findings and generic recommendations.
Sara Solnick, a University of Vermont professor and co-author of groundbreaking work on hit-and-runs, says that LAPD is “not very sophisticated in their data analysis.”
Critics and statistical experts point to obvious manipulation of the data by LAPD. The report introduces five cities — Seattle, New York, San Francisco, Houston and Chicago. Beck's team argues that, viewed through various lenses, New York, Chicago or Houston have worse hit-and-run situations than L.A.
Lieutenant Andy Neiman, LAPD's media relations head, says Beck decided to compare L.A. with those cities because the national hit-and-run rate — 11 percent of all crashes — was misleading and unfair. LAPD doesn't take reports for accidents if there's no injury, the crash isn't a crime, and no city property is damaged. Some cities take reports on every crash, which creates a larger accident figure and lowers their rate of hit-and-runs.
Neiman also said this week that L.A.'s hit-and-run rate should be compared with New York's, Chicago's and Houston's because “we always compare ourselves” to the other three biggest U.S. cities. He said far smaller Seattle and San Francisco were added based on unspecified “demographics.”
Beck claims that, in order to “achieve a fair comparison” of L.A.'s 48 percent hit-and-run rate, the annual “vehicle miles traveled” (VMT) by motorists in sprawling L.A. must be compared with the annual VMT in the five other cities. LAPD, in its report, applies its VMT formula, then determines the hit-and-run injury and death rates in the five chosen cities. Doing this, L.A. looks better than New York, Chicago and Houston.
The city-versus-city contest baffles hit-and-run researchers.
Solnick is openly dismissive, saying that the distance people drive — useful in understanding such things as traffic congestion — is “not a meaningful statistic” to explain why, or how often, drivers flee a crash scene. “It's like saying we had more hit-and-runs on a Wednesday — that doesn't matter.”
Drunk drivers flee the scene. People driving a car without a license flee the scene.
Richard Tay, a leading expert on hit-and-runs and chairman of Road Safety Management at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, says his general impression is that LAPD's “main purpose seems to be to defend L.A.'s record — relative to a few selected cities.”
Both Tay and Solnick said the hit-and-run rate is achieved by dividing total reported hit-and-runs by total reported collisions, as the Weekly did in determining a 48 percent rate for 2009. LAPD released new data this week showing 45,212 vehicle collisions in 2012, including 20,177 hit-and-runs. That's a rate of 44 percent. But Beck's report shows the figure as 38 percent, achieved in part by adding in CHP data on freeway crashes, from which motorists rarely flee.
Ward, a bicyclist with the Midnight Ridazz club, immediately tracked down the Jaguar that struck him — after he handed LAPD nearly the entire license plate number and was informed LAPD wouldn't run the plate for about two weeks. Ward and other critics note that there's no “raw data in this report.” Ward, who served on LAPD's Bike Task Force, says, “I only see what they want to give me. [But] their interpretation means nothing to me.”
Last week, five political appointees to the L.A. Police Commission, led by president Andrea Sheridan Ordin, a former federal prosecutor, asked few questions about Beck's study. Commissioner Robert Saltzman, a USC law professor, wondered if better technology for reporting hit-and-runs could help, while commissioner Richard Drooyan, a defense lawyer for white-collar criminals, asked about stronger punishments.
Several things stand out in the report. Beck abandons any effort to explain L.A.'s yearly 20,000 hit-and-runs. Beck says those crashes — from misdemeanors to fatalities — can't be compared with the five other cities, because L.A.'s reporting and collision categories are dissimilar to theirs. Beck's team handpicked the cities, yet only San Francisco's approach mirrors L.A.'s, as the report acknowledges. (LAPD did not include San Diego or San Jose, whose collision-reporting rules are similar to L.A.'s.)
Leaving that mystery aside, Beck focuses only on L.A.'s 3,400 to 4,000 yearly hit-and-runs involving injury or death, then states that L.A.'s hit-and-run rate hovers around 15 percent of all crashes. To the casual eye, it appears that L.A.'s rate is much lower than the 48 percent it hit in 2009. But he has simply stopped mentioning the vast number of hit-and-runs in which nobody was killed or hurt. The report insists, “A more accurate baseline for comparison was achieved by comparing only injury collisions (including fatal injury) across multiple jurisdictions.”
Bicycle-activist groups, and groups upset about L.A.'s huge, undocumented population of unlicensed drivers, had expected Beck's report to explain how LAPD plans to address the key factors: drivers who are drunk or high, or have no driver's license.
Tay says that, given LAPD's failure to address why people flee, who is believed to flee, what areas of the city they flee from and other key characteristics, LAPD is as bad off as before. “How would the police target their enforcement?” Tay asks. “Where should they go? When should they go?”
The appointees on the Police Commission seemed eager to overlook all this. Commissioner Rafael Bernardino Jr., a trial lawyer, marveled, “Your report does a good job of dispelling the myth that Los Angeles is the hit-and-run capital of the world.”
LAPD assistant chief Michael Moore, via email, argues, “The report articulates the substantial resources committed to solving hit-and-run collisions, holding involved individuals responsible, and educating the public” to prevent hit-and-runs.
The report's authors say they did not try to define any “common cause for leaving the scene,” since the “majority of hit-and-run drivers are not apprehended.”
Solnick and Tay have written numerous studies on the causes. They also know that hit-and-runs most often occur in urban areas, at night, on weekends and under certain road conditions. LAPD could create a clearer picture without ever catching a suspect.
“You have to know what's going on before you can create any kind of intervention to address the problem,” Solnick explains.
Streetsblog L.A. editor Damien Newton believes stiffer state laws, gathering more meaningful data and more aggressive prosecution by the city and district attorney are needed. He says LAPD's study is revealing. “Regardless of how the report was done,” he says, “it shows we have a serious problem.”
Contact Patrick Range McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org.