Spike in violent crime spreads to L.A., but still no alarm bells

Los Angeles is one of several US cities seeing a spike in violent crime. Gang activity seems to be a common theme, but criminologists still caution against reading too much into the trend yet.

Nick Ut/AP/File
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck speaks during a news conference in Los Angeles last month. Mr. Beck says homicides are up nearly 11 percent this year and Los Angeles is looking 'a little too much like Dodge City' following a weekend with five fatal shootings.

Like Baltimore and Chicago and several other American cities, Los Angeles is grappling with a rise in crime.

The spike is especially troubling because it comes after 12 years of decline. So far, 2015 has shown an uptick in everything from domestic violence to homicide, with 39 people killed in August, the worst tally for that month since 2009.

But for all the heartache this surge in violence has brought to communities, both the Los Angeles Police Department as well as national criminologists caution against drawing easy conclusions as to its cause.

“It’s multifaceted,” says Tod Burke, a criminologist at Radford University in Virginia. “You can’t point to just one thing,” he says.

“Less than one year does not make a trend,” he adds. “It does raise the question of what is going on right now, however.”

LAPD officials say much of the recent violence is gang-related – echoing comments from other parts of the country. And some experts point to the cascading consequences of mass incarceration, with California state laws first dramatically expanding prison populations and now significantly reducing them.

But more broadly, there is a growing sense among some criminologists that gains from the much-lauded drop in crime since the 1990s may not have been shared equally among communities – and that this year’s jump in crime may stem from increased pressure arising from that inequality.

“The drop in violent crime rates we've heard so much about has not been evenly distributed across the population. This is a low-crime era for well-to-do white people, but it remains an era of great personal risk for poor people in general, and poor African-Americans in particular,” says Joel Jacobson, a former assistant attorney general in New Mexico, in an e-mail. “The risk faced by people in disadvantaged groups has not actually changed so much since the 1990s – it's just that it only becomes a subject of public attention when it becomes concentrated in an attention-getting way, or the police chief draws attention to it with a colorful comment.”

Many speculate about the potential impact of Proposition 47. The 2014 ballot measure reduced some felony offenses to misdemeanors in order to reduce prison overcrowding. Between November and March, 3,068 inmates were released.

Mr. Jacobson asks whether the era of mass incarceration has played a role.

“We have a whole generation of young men who have grown up with their parents, brothers, uncles, and neighbors going to prison,” he said. “What does it do to children's development when prison is a normal experience? Does habituation to the idea of imprisonment make the threat of prison less of a deterrent, more of an expected rite of passage?”

Despite the statistics, Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck says the city is not spiraling out of control.

“This is not Dodge City,” he said at a Tuesday press conference to address the 19 shootings and five deaths that occurred Saturday and Sunday.

Police need a “sustained partnership” with the community to address the violence, said Capt. Peter Whittingham, who is in charge of detectives in South Los Angeles.

“If we really want to bring justice to a grieving family, the community needs to rise up and send a message to these gang members,” Whittingham said. “To let them know that they cannot hide among us.”

But larger societal forces at work, too, writes Joe Domanick, associate director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in the Los Angeles Times.

“A new Gilded Age of obscene wealth, stunning, low-wage income disparity and grinding poverty have come together to make ghetto and barrio life ever more desperate,” says Mr. Domanick. “As a result, the steam is once again pressing against the engine cap.” 

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