Homicides up drastically in LA county; officials blame resources
Richard Winton and Megan Garvey, Times Staff Writers
Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times
Homicides in territories patrolled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department rose 15% last year, part of a steady increase over the last three years that contrasts with a sharp decline in killings in the city of Los Angeles.
Since 2002, the trends for the state's two largest law enforcement agencies have diverged sharply: Homicides in the city, patrolled by the Los Angeles Police Department, have gone down by a fourth: from 647 to 487 last year. By contrast, homicides in the Sheriff's Department territory are up nearly a fifth since 2002: from 317 to 373. Overall, major crimes declined 1% under the sheriff's jurisdiction.
Even senior Sheriff's Department officials say the LAPD has proved better at responding to crime hot spots, a difference driven by how the two agencies are structured.
"The ability to move resources is what is the difference between the LAPD and our department," said Undersheriff Larry Waldie.
The evidence is most visible by comparing South Los Angeles, where homicides are down in most neighborhoods, with nearby sheriff's territories, including Compton, where they have soared.
Under Chief William J. Bratton, the LAPD has closely monitored crime spikes, used computers to study crime patterns, and aggressively shifted officers to places where crime is rising. Bratton has credited this "flood the zone" strategy with helping to significantly reduce homicides and other major crimes in parts of South Los Angeles.
By contrast, Sheriff Lee Baca is far less able to shift resources. The sheriff serves vast unincorporated areas of the county as well as 40 cities that contract for law enforcement. The contract cities pay for specific levels of service that the department is obligated to provide. Deputies paid for by Malibu, for example, cannot be shifted to respond to a crime surge in Compton.
"We have 40 cities, all with contracts that decide how many deputies they get, and we cannot move deputies except in emergencies," Waldie said. "If Bratton wants to move 600 gang investigators tomorrow to South Los Angeles, he can do it."
The Sheriff's Department is paid about $200 million a year by the 40 cities contracting for law enforcement.
More than 1,200 of the 3,083 patrol deputies assigned to stations countywide work under those city contracts. Sheriff's officials give monthly reports to each contract city, as well as the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, indicating the department's compliance with the level of coverage promised each area.
"If we have to change them for any reason, we have to have a reason," said Lt. Russell Hill of the sheriff's contracts division.
Baca has more discretion in the use of services provided countywide, including homicide detectives and gang officers who are paid for from countywide tax revenue. But the department has struggled with attrition and hiring difficulties that have left an overall shortage of about 1,000 deputies. The department now has 8,200 sworn personnel rather than 9,200, further limiting officials' ability to shift resources to hot spots. Homicide and gang units remained chronically understaffed last year, despite the increase in killings.
Baca has long pressed for more deputies, and is now backing a quarter-cent sales tax increase that would pay for more gang enforcement.
A sharp increase in killings in Compton and unincorporated neighborhoods bordering South Los Angeles fueled the rise in county homicides in 2005. Those areas combined for roughly 50 more gang-related homicides last year than in 2004. Had that not happened, homicides in the sheriff's territory probably would not have increased.
But moving personnel proved difficult despite the concentration of violence in those areas.
It was not until this week that Baca ordered his department to move homicide detectives and additional gang officers to Compton. Waldie said he felt the department had a moral obligation to act.
A few miles away, in unincorporated neighborhoods around Florence and Walnut Park, sheriff's officials moved much earlier to target a racial gang war, adding deputies in April. In that case, they were able to use a $1-million grant from Supervisors Gloria Molina and Yvonne Brathwaite Burke.
In Compton, sheriff's officials said they could not put more patrol deputies on the street unless the city paid for them. The cash-strapped city did purchase additional service -- roughly equivalent to three deputies -- but it was not enough to stem the violence.
Even with the shortage of deputies countywide, some gang unit officers expressed frustration that they were unable to shift personnel from areas with little violent gang crime.
And Sheriff's Homicide Capt. Ray Peavy said the lack of personnel made it hard to solve crimes. "When you solve a lot more murders, it acts as a pretty good deterrent to those thinking about killing someone," he said. "When you lack weaponry and manpower, things get worse."
Law enforcement experts said the crime trends show that Bratton's flexibility is proving more effective than Baca's structure in policing high-crime areas.
"You add a few more cars in South Los Angeles, and it can make a real difference," said George E. Tita, a UC Irvine assistant professor of criminology. "The gangs aren't any different in Compton than in Los Angeles."
Peavy said he agreed with recent comments by Bratton that LAPD successes may have driven crime into areas under the sheriff's jurisdiction.
In a recent interview, Bratton said an unintended consequence of his efforts in Los Angeles may have been to push crime into Compton. "If you are a bookmaker or any other criminal you move down the street to the place where there are fewer cops," Peavy said.
Across the sheriff's jurisdiction, robberies rose 6%, violent crimes rose by 3% and property crimes declined 2%.
"We are pleased with the overall numbers," Waldie said. "But we're not pleased with the overall homicide rate."
Violent crimes in areas patrolled by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department:Crime 2004 2005 Percent change
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