Why the Increase in Crime in Los Angeles?
Written by Michael Kelly, September 28, 2015
On September 13, 2015 the Los Angeles Times ran an article entitled A rise in violence plagues South L.A.: ‘We can’t police our way out of this’, in which L.A. Police Deputy Chief Bill Scott was quoted as saying that “a lack of educational opportunities, jobs and other programs to help improve the community” has played a significant role in the recent increase in violent crime in South L.A. One could argue that the same lack of opportunities in the region have contributed to an overall increase in crime in L.A. during the first half of 2015.
The perplexing question is – why now? When Mayor Eric Garcetti was elected in July of 2013 the unemployment rate was 11.9 percent, four points higher than today’s rate. Yet statistics released by LAPD in the same year showed that crime within the L.A. city limits had fallen for the 11th straight year. Their numbers showed that the per capita crime rate was the lowest its been since the 1950s and 1960s.
At the time Mayor Garcetti, whose top priority as Mayor is to make L.A. the safest, most prosperous, most livable, and best-run big city in America, said “It’s because of smart data-driven policing. It’s because LAPD now works with communities, not against them, and it’s because we are as focused on prevention and intervention as we are on enforcement.”
Today the Mayor and Police Chief Charlie Beck attribute the increased crime rates to several possible factors, including gang violence, rising homelessness and a November ballot measure that downgraded many theft and drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.
What has changed?
For criminologists, the argument has always been straightforward: When less legal work is available, more illegal “work” takes place.
The economist Gary Becker of the University of Chicago, gave the standard view its classic formulation in the 1960s. He argued that crime is a rational act, committed when the criminal’s “expected utility” exceeds that of using his time and other resources in pursuit of alternative activities, such as leisure or legitimate work. Observation may appear to bear this theory out. After all, neighborhoods with elevated crime rates tend to be those where poverty and unemployment are high as well.
But, according to James Q. Wilson, an American academic, political scientist, and an authority on public administration, there have long been difficulties with the notion that unemployment causes crime. For one thing, the 1960s, a period of rising crime, had essentially the same unemployment rate as the late 1990s and early 2000s, a period when crime fell. And during the Great Depression, when unemployment hit 25 percent, the crime rate in many cities went down. Among the explanations offered for this puzzle is that unemployment and poverty were so common during the Great Depression that families became closer, devoted themselves to mutual support, and kept young people, who might be more inclined to criminal behavior, under constant adult supervision.
Writing in 2011, Wilson mentioned that many families today are weaker and children are more independent, which means we would not see the same effect, so certain criminologists continue to suggest that a 1 percent increase in the unemployment rate should produce as much as a 2 percent increase in property-crime rates.
Yet when the recent recession struck, that didn’t happen. As the national unemployment rate doubled from around 5 percent to nearly 10 percent, the property-crime rate, far from spiking, fell significantly. For 2009, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported an 8 percent drop in the nationwide robbery rate and a 17 percent reduction in the auto-theft rate from the previous year. Big-city reports show the same thing. Between 2008 and 2010, New York City experienced a 4% decline in the robbery rate and a 10% fall in the burglary rate. Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles witnessed similar declines.
Some scholars argue that the unemployment rate is too crude a measure of economic frustration to prove the connection between unemployment and crime, since it estimates only the percentage of the labor force that is looking for work and hasn’t found it. But other economic indicators tell much the same story. The labor-force participation rate lets us determine the percentage of the labor force that is neither working nor looking for work – individuals who are, in effect, detached from the labor force. These people should be especially vulnerable to criminal inclinations, if the bad-economy-leads-to-crime theory holds.
In 2008, though, even as crime was falling, only about half of men aged 16 to 24 (who are disproportionately likely to commit crimes) were in the labor force, down from over two-thirds in 1988.
The University of Michigan’s Consumer Sentiment Index offers another way to assess the link between the economy and crime. This measure rests on thousands of interviews asking people how their financial situations have changed over the last year, how they think the economy will do during the next year, and about their plans for buying durable goods. The index measures the way people feel, rather than the objective conditions they face. It has proved to be a very good predictor of stock-market behavior and, for a while, of the crime rate, which tended to climb when people lost confidence. When the index collapsed in 2009 and 2010, the stock market predictably went down with it – but this time, the crime rate went down, too.
Wilson mentioned that we have little reason to ascribe the past crime rate decline to jobs, the labor market or consumer sentiment.
He went on to attribute the decline to a few specific reasons. I have added my own notes on how L.A.’s current trend fits into these categories.
More people are in prison than in the past. Experts differ on the size of the effect, but he thinks that William Spelman and Steven Levitt have it about right in believing that greater incarceration can explain about one-quarter or more of the crime decline. When prisoners are kept off the street, there are fewer opportunities for criminals to commit crimes against law abiding citizens. Times have changed and today many thoughtful observers think that we put too many offenders in prison for too long. In 2014 Californians passed Proposition 47, a ballot measure that downgraded felony drug possession and thefts and this resulted in the release of about 3,700 inmates from state prison. Mayor Garcetti and Police Chief Beck recently attribute L.A.’s 11 percent rise in property crimes, burglaries, thefts and motor vehicle thefts, to this change. Mayor Garcetti is calling for Proposition 47’s funding for treatment and other programs to be expedited to arrest this trend.
Potential victims may have become better at protecting themselves. More people are equipping their homes with burglar alarms, putting extra locks on their cars and moving into safer buildings or even safer neighborhoods.
Policing has become more disciplined over the last two decades. Today policing tends to be driven by the desire to reduce crime, rather than simply to maximize arrests, and that shift has reduced crime rates. One of the most important innovations is what has been called hot-spot policing. The great majority of crimes tend to occur in the same places. Put active police resources in those areas instead of telling officers to drive around waiting for 911 calls, and you can bring down crime. The hot-spot idea helped to increase the effectiveness of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Compstat program, which uses computerized maps to pinpoint where crime is taking place and enables police chiefs to hold precinct captains responsible for targeting those areas. Research shows that for every minute an officer spent at a spot, the length of time without a crime there after the officer departed went up—until the officer had been gone for more than 15 minutes. After that, the crime rate went up. The police can make the best use of their time by staying at a hot spot for a while, moving on, and returning after 15 minutes.
Here in L.A., the rise might also be attributable in part to the L.A. Police Department’s crime stats simply being reported more honestly. An irrefutable L.A. Times investigation of the department’s crime numbers for the first half of 2014, for example, discovered the misclassification of 1,200 violent felony assaults as misdemeanors, thus making it appear that serious violent crime was going down when in fact it went up by 14 percent. Secondly, some would argue that officer morale in the LAPD has been on a steady decline in the last year due to a new wave of anti-police sediment in the country.
Side note: Some cities now use a computer-based system for mapping traffic accidents and crime rates. They have noticed that the two measures tend to coincide: Where there are more accidents, there is more crime.
Medical reason? For decades, doctors have known that children with lots of lead in their blood are much more likely to be aggressive, violent and delinquent. In 1974, the Environmental Protection Agency required oil companies to stop putting lead in gasoline. At the same time, lead in paint was banned for any new home (though old buildings still have lead paint, which children can absorb). Tests have shown that the amount of lead in Americans’ blood fell by four-fifths between 1975 and 1991. A 2007 study by the economist Jessica Wolpaw Reyes contended that the reduction in gasoline lead produced more than half of the decline in violent crime during the 1990s in the U.S. and might bring about greater declines in the future.
California harbors a large stock of older housing, and in some areas, many homes and buildings are deteriorating, their peeling or chipping paint are contributing to lead exposure. The L.A. county health department office has tracked old housing across L.A. County and mapped the homes of children under six years old who receive Medi-Cal, California’s medical program for the poor, aged and disabled. South L.A. is in one of the high-risk areas for lead poisoning and the department has seen more cases there of lead-poisoned children. Of the children who have tested positive for high blood lead levels and referred to the city’s Lead Hazard Remediation Program since the spring, 70 percent are from South L.A.
Decrease in heavy cocaine. Between 1992 and 2009, the number of hospital admissions for cocaine or crack use fell by nearly two-thirds. In 1999, 9.8% of 12th-grade students said that they had tried cocaine; by 2010, that figure had fallen to 5.5%. Casual users who regard coke as a party drug are probably less likely to commit serious crimes than heavy users who may resort to theft and violence to feed their craving. But a study by Jonathan Caulkins at Carnegie Mellon University found that the total demand for cocaine dropped between 1988 and 2010, with a sharp decline among both light and heavy users. The reason was simple: younger users had known many people who used crack and other hard drugs and wound up in prisons, hospitals and morgues. The risks of using marijuana were far less serious. Today there are broader national trends that might be affecting L.A.’s crime rate. According to Ron Noblet, the dean of gang interventionists at the Los Angeles Urban Peace Institute, the heroin epidemic plaguing the Northeast has finally started to hit L.A. He says it is moving now from middle-class kids in the west San Fernando Valley to Chicano and African American areas such as South Los Angeles and East L.A. Unfortunately we might be seeing heroin become a crime-rise factor like crack was in the 1980s, both in terms of strung-out users committing crimes to feed their addiction and gangs fighting turf wars over drug distribution rights. LAPD brass has pointed to increased gang violence as a contributing factor to the city’s rise in violent crime this year. Chief Charlie Beck said that although gang-related killings were down 9 percent during the first half of the year compared with 2014, shootings were up 26 percent and overall gang-related crimes were up 18 percent.
Culture. At the deepest level, many of these shifts, taken together, suggest that crime in the United States is falling- even through the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression – because of a big improvement in the culture. The cultural argument may strike some as vague, but writers have relied on it in the past to explain both the Great Depression’s fall in crime and the explosion of crime during the sixties. In the first period, on this view, people took self-control seriously; in the second, self-expression – at society’s cost – became more prevalent. It is a plausible case. Yet, culture is the realm of novelists and biographers, not of data-driven social scientists. It may indeed be the case that because police have chosen not to arrest people as often as before for those six crimes, the vast majority of which are drug offenses, there are more people living on the streets and committing property crimes to feed their habits. But it’s hard to see the connection between the non-arrest of drug users and the uptick in domestic violence, rape and other violent crimes.
L.A.’s homeless problem seems to contradict this. Today L.A.’s homeless is on a steep rise, up 16 percent in L.A. County. Association isn’t causation, but the patterns in the stats are striking. On the streets of skid row and adjacent Chinatown, violent crime has exploded by 67 percent, property crimes by 26 percent; and in the LAPD’s Central Division, which polices downtown, felonious assaults have skyrocketed by 80 percent. Meanwhile, in the nearby Wilshire Division, the number of homeless has been overflowing from skid row. There, violent crimes and burglaries have increased by 14 percent and vehicle thefts by 26 percent. Similarly, in the heart of Hollywood, in the areas framed by Hollywood and Vine, there’s been a reported 140 percent increase in homelessness along with an overall violent crime rise of 14.7 percent in the Hollywood Division.
Joe Domanick, the West Coast bureau chief of TheCrimeReport.org and associate director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York recently suggested that since 2000, a new generation of L.A.’s ever-expanding legion of the poor has grown into their teens and early 20s – the prime crime-committing years – and come of age in the fierce, dog-eat-dog economy of the Great Recession. They have faced gasoline prices hovering around $5 a gallon, $13 movie tickets, a bag of groceries costing twice as much as six or seven years ago, and trouble finding even stagnant low-wage jobs or seats at overcrowded community colleges.
Simultaneously, housing in L.A. has become the most expensive in the nation, as gentrification is pushing the city’s poor and miserably paid out of their neighborhoods, increasingly with no place to go. Those who remain are living in what social scientists call “severely overcrowded homes,” while services for the poor dwindle. All are incubators of desperation and criminal behavior.
But he takes an educated guess on what might be the key factor causing L.A. crime to rise: Something may be happening akin to the eras of the Watts riots of 1965, the high-crime crack war years of the 1980s and early ’90s, and the 1992 Los Angeles riots. And it’s this: 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. As a result, the steam is once again pressing against the engine cap, just as it did during those infamous 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.
What, then, should we be doing economically, going forward?
In the end L.A. Police Deputy Chief Bill Scott is right. L.A. needs more jobs. Not just low-skilled jobs, but middle-skilled jobs and better workforce development programs that spend less money on reports, rent and staff and more on training programs that provide Angelenos the skills they needs to thrive in the 21st century economy.
After all, the source of L.A.’s economic power and future success is its people and their access to quality jobs that pay good wages.