For Los Angeles, fewest homicides since 1967. Why the drop?

In 2010, Los Angeles saw 297 homicides – down from more than 600 a year in the 1990s. The mayor and police groups praise the LAPD, but other are dubious.

Jae C. Hong/AP
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, presents photographs found in the possession of suspected 'Grim Sleeper' serial killer Lonnie David Franklin Jr. Dec. 16 in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles saw its lowest level of homicides in more than 40 years in 2010, but law enforcement and community leaders can't seem to agree on why violent crime has fallen.

On Tuesday Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck announced that the city of Los Angeles finished 2010 with 297 murders, quite a drop from the 1990s, when annual homicides regularly topped 600.

"Today, I am proud to announce that last year, in 2010, Los Angeles had fewer murders than at any point since 1967,” Mayor Villaraigosa said at a downtown press conference Tuesday. “Even during tough economic times, we have kept our sights on a more hopeful, promising, and safer future and the statistics once again shed light on a much brighter outcome for our city.”

The homicide rate per 10,000 people was 0.74 – the lowest since 1964, when Los Angeles had a per capita rate of 0.66.

Police unions, urban policy analysts, and the ACLU all released statements praising the LAPD's efforts at building bridges with the communities it serves.

“The LAPD took three major steps that turned what arguably was once the nation's poster police agency for racism, abuse, violence, and brutality into a model of professionalism, efficiency, and community sensitivity,” says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable.

Mr. Hutchinson says the LAPD markedly reduced the number of officer shootings and the use of force through training and diligent discipline. “[The LAPD] made a concerted effort to improve relations with the African-American community through meetings, town halls, increased use of foot and bike patrols, and visible accessibility and access of police officials interacting with black leaders,” he says.

The announcement comes as cities including Chicago, Detroit, and San Diego claim significant progress against crime. For instance, Chicago police Superintendent Jody Weis Monday said the city had 435 homicides – its lowest number since 1965.

Generally speaking, improvements in technology – video, DNA testing, and cell phones – have made solving homicides far easier, resulting in fewer cold cases, says Lisa Smith, a professor of criminal law at Brooklyn Law School.

But she and other analysts are wary of heaping too much praise on police departments for driving crime rates down.

“It is instructive to look at the individual precincts and compare their year-to-year homicides," says Ms. Smith. "How many of those homicides involve strangers and how many are interpersonal disputes? How many homicides are solved versus unsolved?"

More analysis is needed to draw proper conclusions, she says. Indeed, further study could suggest that other national and local trends might have had as much affect on the homicide rate as police efforts.

For one, the national economy could be a factor. “A slow economy usually means less people out and about getting into confrontations," says Joey Lipari of Citizens Alert at the Jane Addams College of Social Work at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “The police departments always try to take credit for drops in crime, but its not clear to me, or most criminologists, what exactly causes the stats to fluctuate.”

Adds Lance Hannon, a sociologist at Villanova University in Pennsylvania: "Sometimes you find out that the crime rate was going down long before the police did anything different and was also going down in other cities as well."

The numbers also befuddle some observers. Chicago has been struggling against the perception that violence has been spiraling out of control.

“I am dubious of these claims that crime is dropping,” says Mary Powers, director of the National Coalition on Police Accountability.

She notes that the announcement comes just as a new Chicago mayor’s race approaches. “It’s very hard to sort out if crime is really dropping or if politicians are merely trying to make it look that way,” she says.

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