LOS ANGELES — At a heated town forum at the Los Angeles Central Public Library, City Attorney Mike Feuer and Police Department captains struggled to explain the spike in crime throughout the city and downtown in particular.
After more than a decade of steady drops in crime, the overall crime rate jumped more than 12 percent in Los Angeles the first six months of this year compared with the first half of last year, and violent offenses rose more than 20 percent. Some of the biggest increases were in downtown, which saw a 34 percent hike in overall crime and a 56 percent surge in violent crime.
More drugs, more gang activity, more homelessness, more rapes, more robberies, more prostitution, all in an area that has more residents — many of them relatively affluent — because of a boom in residential construction. One crime category that didn’t rise was homicides.
“There is no one particular reason,” said the LAPD’s central division area Captain Mike Oreb.
Some of the spikes are due to a change in the crime reporting system, which has classified more offenses as crimes, he said. Prosecutors and law enforcement also blame California’s Proposition 47, a ballot measure that this year downgraded minor offenses — drug possession and thefts — from felonies to misdemeanors and set thousands of inmates free in an effort to reduce prison overcrowding.
Property crimes — including burglary, theft and motor vehicle theft — have risen in much of Los Angeles County since Proposition 47 passed, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of crime data, though no causal link has been proved.
Los Angeles is not alone. Across the U.S., major cities are reporting headline-grabbing crime increases that are baffling some criminologists and are promptly being dismissed by others.
Baltimore, New York, Chicago, Houston, Milwaukee, Dallas, St. Louis, San Antonio, New Orleans and Washington, D.C., are all reporting double-digit surges in murders the first half of this year.
Is this the beginning of a reversal in crime trends that had been on a downward trajectory for decades?
“The short answer is, I don’t think we really know,” said Jim Bueermann, the president of the Police Foundation, the oldest nonpartisan police organization, which researches crime trends and law enforcement policies. “We struggle understanding what causes crime to go up and down. … There are a lot of beliefs, a lot of theories but very few scientific evidence behind them.”
James Alan Fox, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston, is dismissive of the half-year statistics. “The shorter the window, the more volatile the numbers,” he said. “Six-month homicide numbers are especially unreliable.”
He likens it to a 100-point spike in the stock market on one day. “It doesn’t say anything. … You really shouldn’t make much at all about a one-year change, especially when it’s a six-month window.”
Fox warns against fueling the contagion of fear and stressed that the point-in-time numbers should be kept in historical context. In New York City, for example, the number of murders for the first half of the year is 11 percent higher than the year before but more than 30 percent lower than five years earlier.
And in July, New York Police Commissioner William Bratton reported that June was the city’s lowest-crime June since 1994 — in sharp contrast to a more violent May, when there was a rise in shootings and gun deaths.
Even though murders and shootings are up from last year, the overall citywide crime rate is down, and New York City, with 8.5 million people, is on track to have fewer than 100,000 major crimes this year.
And then there’s Baltimore, where murders for the first six months of this year rose 48 percent from the same period last year, to 144. Police officials there point to the looting of pharmacies during protests in April and May over the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody. A vast supply of drugs hit the streets and created more friction between gangs.
Others talk about the Ferguson effect. Since the outcry over police shootings of black men sparked riots and protests in several cities, some police chiefs said that their officers are holding back on criminal enforcement out of fear of retaliation.
Just last week a Birmingham, Alabama, police detective said he was pistol-whipped with his own gun because he didn’t want to be accused of using needless force on an unarmed man. He asked to remain anonymous to avoid jeopardizing his position.
“This post-Ferguson idea — [it] seems a little too early to say” that it is leading to more crime, said Lt. Steve Lurie, a California police officer who teaches police practices at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
Sociologists have linked the rise in protests and crime to growing income inequality and dwindling opportunities for the poor and the middle class. But that theory has confounded experts before.
“There was a widely held belief that when the economy would slow down, crime would go up,” Bueermann said. “That pattern worked for a while, until all of a sudden it stopped working. In the last recession, crime continued to drop. That blows that theory out of the water.”
The national crime trend may be unclear, but local police are responding to what is happening in their own cities. The LAPD, for example, is deploying more officers to high-crime neighborhoods.
Feuer and LAPD officers have been holding town forums in various neighborhoods throughout the city. The one this week downtown was dominated by advocates and homeless denizens of Skid Row angry with a new ordinance that forbids the homeless from blocking the sidewalks during business hours. If they don't heed citations within 24 hours, their personal belongings may be impounded. There were angry shouts and accusations.
Feuer admitted that funding has not been spent on the right things. More has to be done to create affordable housing in all neighborhoods, he said, and to get services — including mental health care— to people who need them on the streets. The city has set up citation clinics to encourage the homeless to take advantage of services in return for a dismissal of citations.
Downtown residents were there too, but most stayed quiet, and some declined to provide their names. There is awareness of the crime spike, said a public relations consultant who lives downtown. “Certainly, there is a large homeless population that presents a lot of challenges,” she said. “There isn’t any one place where you can’t be aware of your surroundings.”
Community activist Hilda Jimenez works with predominantly Latino vendors in downtown’s flower district, a block from Skid Row. She said the concentration of single-sale liquor stores and homeless encampments creates an untenable situation. Drug dealers stash their goods with the homeless in exchange for beer or liquor.
“No one should be sleeping on the streets,” she said, but the laws on the books take care of one problem and create another.
“Crime has always been cyclical” in Los Angeles, Lurie said. “There were years where there were the same gross number of crimes … when the city had half the number of people.”