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Posted: 9/13/2004 5:07:46 PM EDT
Murder Rate Anomaly: Fewer Shot;
An increase in L.A. homicides has become a campaign issue. But a drop in shooting victims suggests the cause of the trend is complex.

Jill Leovy, Times Staff Writer

Although a 4% uptick in homicides in Los Angeles so far this year has quickly sparked a political debate over Mayor James K. Hahn's record on fighting crime, the increase may have little to do with policing, according to officers in the hardest-hit parts of the city and other experts.

While homicides are up, the number of people shot -- including those merely wounded -- has declined in the same period citywide. Shootings have even diminished in the same South Los Angeles neighborhoods where homicide deaths have risen most dramatically.

Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton called the gap an anomaly. "It's very difficult to try to figure out what is happening," he said.

Citywide, there were 368 homicides as of the week ending Sept. 4, up from 353 at the same time last year. Most were caused by gunfire. But the number of people struck by bullets -- both injured and killed -- fell to 1,628 as of last week, down 4% from the same period last year.

The discrepancy is especially pronounced in some of the city's most deadly areas. As is usually the case, homicides have shot up most in places that traditionally have the highest rates of violent crime, such as South Los Angeles, Watts and the northeast San Fernando Valley.

Leading the city in homicides this year is the 77th Street Division, which covers South Los Angeles around Florence Boulevard. The 77th precinct for years has ranked first or second in homicides among the Los Angeles Police Department's 18 divisions.

The rising death toll in the 77th as of Sept. 4 was large enough to account for the entire citywide increase in homicides. And as of Friday, homicides in the precinct's area had jumped further -- to 67 compared with 47 the previous year.

At the same time, the number of people shot in the 77th area is down about 3%.

The entire South Bureau of the LAPD, of which the 77th precinct is a part, has recorded 167 homicides as of Sept. 4, up 17 from last year.

No other part of the city is afflicted to such an extreme. The Central Bureau, which covers downtown Los Angeles and surrounding neighborhoods, had 96 homicides as of Sept. 4, down 11 from last year. The San Fernando Valley Bureau had 55 homicides, up three from last year, and the West Los Angeles Bureau had 50 homicides, up six from last year.

The Valley and West Los Angeles bureaus cover larger geographic territories with larger populations than the South Bureau.

About 84% of Los Angeles homicides last year were gun-related. But most gunshot wounds don't kill. Fewer than one in four of the people hit by bullets in the city so far this year were killed, and that rate can vary widely.

The LAPD tracks the total number of shooting victims as well as the number of homicides to get a better picture of the overall level of violent conflict in the city.

Experts say many factors may explain why deaths can be up while shootings are down -- among them, sheer, cruel chance. One bullet proves fatal by striking a vital organ; another merely grazes the skin or lodges in a muscle or a bone.

"What separates a homicide and an [assault] is a fraction of an inch," said Det. Rudy Lemos, who supervises the 77th's homicide unit.

Lemos said he had no explanation for the change in the area's homicide trends. He and other officers in the division say there has been no particular change in local gang warfare patterns, weapons or types of killings that might account for the recent trends.

"It's the same old gangs," Lemos said.

Capt. Kenneth Garner of the 77th agreed. "I don't think you can point to any one thing. It's a lot of different elements."

Richard Rosenfeld, professor of criminology at University of Missouri-St. Louis, said that some studies have suggested that shifts in trauma care and emergency services can affect crime trends: the more lives saved through medical intervention, the fewer the number of assaults that become homicides.

Last week, City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, the former police chief who now represents much of South Los Angeles and is running for mayor, used the rising homicide trends to argue that Hahn had failed to deliver on promises to make L.A. the nation's safest big city.

Supporters of Hahn, who chose Bratton to replace Parks, shot back that Parks' tenure as chief was a failure.

Statistics show that both Hahn and Parks have a mixed record on homicides.

The number of killings in Los Angeles during Hahn's term has yet to reach the low point that occurred when Parks was chief in 1998. That was a banner year, with only 419 killings in the city.

But homicides rose sharply in the latter part of Parks' term as chief, reaching 647 in 2002, his last year on the job. The number then dipped again, falling to 515 last year.

How much effect police strategies or political leaders can have on crime trends remains a subject of debate. Bratton has frequently argued that police strategies have a direct effect on levels of violent crime.

He promised earlier this year that his approach, which combines diligent policing of quality-of-life offenses in high-crime areas with strict accountability standards for managers, would bring homicides in Los Angeles down by 20% this year.

But as 2004 entered its final four months, he said his homicide goal would not be met.

In an interview last week, Bratton sought to turn the statistics to the advantage of his campaign to boost the number of officers.

Year-to-date changes in homicide statistics are measured in "numbers so small that it is hard to determine trends," Bratton said. "But the continuing, underlying refrain is that with more cops, we can do more."

Bratton supports a measure on the Nov. 2 ballot that would increase Los Angeles County's sales tax to pay for additional police and sheriff's deputies.

The increase of homicides in the 77th precinct demonstrates the need for more police, despite the downward trend in shootings there, Bratton said.

Officer ranks in the 77th Street precinct, which Bratton made a public show of boosting in 2003, have now shrunk by about 15%. "If we could keep 100 cops there, we could make it a safer place, but I don't have them," Bratton said.

Parks acknowledged last week that recent statistics on shooting victims in the city may point to factors beyond policing or quality of medical care, including whether victims were healthy before being shot or whether they have health insurance.

But Parks stood by his criticisms of Hahn's record on public safety, saying that his concerns are focused on the disproportionate increase in deaths in South Los Angeles. Police strategies under Hahn may have reduced killing in some parts of the city but have not had the same effect these long-suffering areas, he said.

September 13, 2004

Better marksmanship, tactics, ammo performance, or weapons would all be possible explanations.
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