If someone were to tell you that the gang-related homicide rate in the San Fernando Valley more than doubled this January compared to last January, would that be a cause for concern? How about if there were only five such killings?
Yet both statements are true. Two killings in January of 2006, five in 2007. Depending on how you frame it, that’s a minor blip — or a huge wave.
Amid widespread TV and newspaper reports of a 14 percent increase in gang crime in 2006, the Los Angeles Times devotes space to calling it a “crisis.” But wait: Only a couple of months ago, the same newspaper ran a story titled “L.A. crime decreases for 5th year,” which glowingly quoted Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton taking credit.
Bratton bragged that the reduction in crime was not merely a lucky break, saying, “You can’t be lucky seven times in a row. If I was, I’d be making a living hanging out at the blackjack table.”
Meanwhile, the Daily News, citing the 14 percent gang-crime increase in 2006, has declared a “surge” in gang crime. But hyperbole on this issue is nothing new for that newspaper either. A 2004 story headlined “Homegrown Terror” states that gangs “make up less than 1 percent of the population but commit at least half the region’s homicides — taking the lives of nearly 3,100 people in Southern California since 1999, more than three times the number of U.S. casualties in the war in Iraq.”
That’s mighty rhetoric, but ultimately meaningless. The war in Iraq had been under way just one year at that point, yet the Daily News compared those 12 months to five years of gang killings in America’s second biggest city.
Against the current scary-sounding backdrop created by the mayor and the media, the city is considering a multifaceted anti-gang plan from civic activist and lawyer Connie Rice’s so-called “Advancement Project” that could, if ever fully implemented, cost up to $1 billion in public money.
It is described as “a Marshall Plan–like initiative” — yet another implication that war has broken out and L.A. residents are under a gang siege.
But does our purported gang crisis merit such a response? The L.A. Weekly asked a few experts on the subject to analyze the data — but without the City Hall–driven spin.
In an e-mail response, George Tita, an assistant professor of criminology, law and society at UC Irvine, said, “All crime is WAY DOWN from the early 1990s… It’s been falling for years, and in most cities other than L.A. it’s started to climb upward again.” Yet crime is not, Tita pointedly notes, climbing in Los Angeles — now rated the second safest big city in America.
It’s virtually impossible to glean this fact from most headlines as Villaraigosa, District Attorney Rocky Delgadillo and Bratton push the idea of a rapidly rising threat from gangs. Tita says he isn’t suggesting that 2006’s gang-crime increase is irrelevant, but it’s important to recognize the use of “a selective statistic.”
Kent Bausman, director of criminology at Maryville University, has a similar take, saying, “I mean, you talk about an epidemic? [Los Angeles] had an epidemic 15 years ago, but nothing like that today.”
As he points out, the city’s murder rate in 2005 was 12.6 per 100,000 residents. By comparison, the high-crime year of 1992 saw a rate more than double that — 30.3 killings per 100,000 L.A. residents.
Those overall murder rates don’t necessarily correlate with gang-related crime, as the LAPD takes pains to point out. According to its statistics, overall crime is indeed down, but gang-crime rates seem to be going up.
Which leads to an obvious question: How does the LAPD classify a crime as being committed by or against gang members?
Susan Phillips, a professor at Pitzer College, says the answer to that question is both vague and changeable, based on LAPD records she has studied.
“Starting in 1992, there were around 60,000 gang members” in Los Angeles, she says. “Then in 2001 begins a gradual decline, and now, suddenly, we have only 40,000.” Asks Phillips, “So where did 20,000 gang members go? Just because somebody is under an injunction or in prison doesn’t mean they have stopped being a gang member.” Adds Phillips sarcastically, “Suddenly, we don’t have as much of a gang problem as we did before.”
She’s not the only academic type openly mocking city officials as they get TV face time for declaring a gang outbreak. (On February 23, not to be left out, the Los Angeles City Council approved a dramatic $50,000 reward for information leading to convictions of criminals on a list of 10 most-wanted gang members.)
Commenting on Phillips’ dubious views of how officials depict and count gang membership and gang crime, Malcolm Klein, a professor emeritus of sociology at USC, laughs: “It’s worse than that!”
According to Klein, every city in Los Angeles County sends its gang-crime data to the Sheriff’s Department, which has long used that collected data to officially place the number of gang members countywide at 150,000.
But, says Klein, “Several years ago, all of a sudden, Sheriff [Lee] Baca changed that number to 90,000 [gang members]. A week later it was 80,000.”
Chidingly, Klein notes, “Somehow I don’t think half of the gang members in Los Angeles suddenly disappeared.”
Tom Nolan, a professor of criminal justice at Boston University and formerly a Boston police officer for 27 years, is heartily skeptical of pinning down realistic gang-crime statistics in L.A., based on his own experiences moving the goalposts in Boston.
He says some urban police departments believe that “if there’s a sense, and this can be communicated in a police agency, that we really need to identify every possible gang-related incident as a gang-related crime of violence, and if there’s a doubt, then categorize it as that. Put it down as one, because we need numbers.”
Conversely, Nolan adds, “If we want to disavow that we have this gang problem — and this is what we did in Boston in the late ’80s and early ’90s — nothing is classified as related to gangs. Because guess what? We don’t have gangs in here.”
Taking the opposite tack from Boston officials years ago, Villaraigosa is depicting L.A. as being hammered by gangs. But his strategy — perhaps aimed at shaking out more federal crime-fighting dollars — can’t be popular with the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau, or with businesses who rely on tourists, or with critics who say a bumbling City Hall keeps giving middle-class residents more and more reasons to flee.
Villaraigosa, who ran for office in part on a promise to woo the middle class, is instead creating headlines in other cities’ newspapers, like the Chicago Tribune and Kansas City Star, calling L.A. the “national epicenter,” “breeding ground” and, quoting the mayor, the “gang capital” — and vividly depicting an unlivable Los Angeles now under the thumb of gangs.
Ironically, lawyer Rice, in her lengthy and strongly worded — but clearly flawed — Advancement Project report on gang problems, cites Boston’s “Operation Ceasefire” as an anti-gang success story, apparently unaware that gang crimes in Boston were being miscategorized by police — like Nolan — as non-gang crimes.
Rice’s report says of Boston: “Despite ongoing debate about how much of the reduction in violence was directly attributable to Operation Ceasefire, there is no question that the collaboration among the police department, the small faith-based organizations and the public-health community was an integral part of Boston’s success.”
Nolan, who was on the beat in Boston at the time, says dismissively, “I can tell you that there is no empirical evidence that exists that attests in any way toward that strategy having any effect on the reduction in the rate of homicide in Boston during the 1990s.”
Los Angeles may well be seeing the start of an upward gang-crime cycle, but as Nolan puts it, “If [Connie Rice’s] initiative wasn’t looking to expend a billion dollars of public funds, would not the police be taking credit for a decrease in the overall gang activity over the last five years?”
That is, in fact, what the city’s crime data show: a decrease, not an increase, in gang crimes since 1999, with a dip in 2004 and 2005, followed by a return to typical annual levels — not an explosion — in 2006.
Unlike Nolan, however, Klein thinks the Advancement Project report has the right ideas. “It’s a very solid look at… the enormity of the problem that we face if we’re going to do something seriously about it. So enormous, in fact, that I can guarantee you the City Council isn’t going to buy into much of it.”
That may, of course, depend on how frightened City Hall politicians are by their own spin, which at least seems to be unnerving the local media — and probably many in the public at large.