‘It’s a Puzzle’: Experts Are Trying to Figure Out What’s Causing L.A.’s Crime Wave

Los Angeles is on track to record 437 murders this year, the most since 2006. Theories abound, but no one really knows why

In 1993, a Time cover story asked, “Is Los Angeles going to hell?” The city was still reeling from the Rodney King riots, still gripped by gang violence, still mired in the crack epidemic. For the third year in a row, more than 1,000 men and women would be murdered within the city’s jagged borders. And so the question wasn’t complete hyperbole.

And then a funny thing happened: crime started to tick steadily downward, not only in L.A. but across the nation. Social scientists struggled to explain the unexpected shift. There was the “broken windows” theory (popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s best-seller The Tipping Point); the abortion theory, detailed in the best-seller Freakonomics); and the lead-crime hypothesis (promoted by Mother Jones in 2016). Some said it was tougher laws and longer jail sentences. Some said it was the aging population. Whatever the reason, the drop in crime transformed urban life in America. The problem with cities became not that they were too dangerous but that they were too expensive.

Then, last year, as COVID ravaged the globe, crime took another unexpected turn. Property crime fell; there were fewer burglaries and larcenies. And there were fewer reported rapes. But in most cities, including Los Angeles, violent crime went up. There were more than 350 murders in L.A. last year, a 38 percent increase from 2019.

And the trend appears to be continuing. The LAPD reports that in the first 24 weeks of 2021, reports of shots fired were up 48 percent. The number of people wounded by gun violence was up 50 percent. And homicides were up 26 percent. Los Angeles is on track to record 437 murders this year, the most since 2006.

“It’s a puzzle,” says David Abrams, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who runs the City Crime Stats website. “I think a lot of people are trying to understand it. I haven’t seen anything compelling that fully nails it.”

Captain Paul Vernon ran the Los Angeles Police Department’s COMPSTAT division until this past April. Vernon spent much of 2020 trying to figure out what was behind the rise in killings. Some were quick to blame the spike on COVID. But, says Vernon, homicides and aggravated assaults were up in the first two months of 2020, before the pandemic took hold in the U.S. When stay-at-home orders were issued in March, there was a large drop in property crime, accompanied by a smaller drop in violent crime.

Then, in May, George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, triggering protests across the country. And for reasons that are now the subject of some debate, Floyd’s death marked an inflection point; in its aftermath, killings surged in most American cities. The murder rate in Milwaukee nearly doubled. Washington, D.C. saw a 64 percent increase in homicides. Murders in Philadelphia hit a 30-year high.

When he looked at the L.A. data, the first thing Vernon noticed was that the spike wasn’t evenly distributed across the city. Shootings were rising in the same places that already had disproportionately high numbers—south of the 10 freeway, east of the L.A. River. Most of the increase in gun  crime was due to shootings with multiple victims. Vernon also noticed a prevalence of “walk-up” shootings. “If you’re going
to walk up to someone and shoot them,” he says, “you’re
going to be more successful at hitting your target, and
you’re going to be more lethal.”

Why the sudden rise in gun violence? Vernon’s theory is one promulgated by a number of U.S. police departments: decreased police presence in high-crime areas. Some of this was by design. In October 2019, the LAPD announced that its Metropolitan Division, a group of 200 officers, would stop pulling over random drivers after a Los Angeles Times investigation found that traffic stops were disproportionately targeting Black drivers. And, indeed, traffic stops were down 27 percent in 2020.

But Vernon says the decrease in police presence was also due to another, more organic reason. “If you’re going to call the police ‘racist,’ if you’re going to call for the defunding of the police and stigmatize the police, there’s gonna be a natural pullback from the police,” he says. “Police are not going to be as proactive in making stops—in initiating activity—if they believe the result of that is going to be them getting fired or being called a racist.”

The upshot, according to cops like Vernon, is that criminals feel emboldened, more comfortable carrying a gun, maybe even more comfortable using one.

Needless to say, Vernon’s view is controversial, disputed by activists who argue the rise in homicides has more to do with economic conditions than lack of police presence.

“The idea that police demoralization could have resulted in the kinds of homicide increases we’re talking about really strains credulity,” says Richard Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri–St. Louis. “If the police are pulling back, why is it that it only affected the homicide rates? Why not the property crime rate?” He adds, “There could have been some impact on homicide. But a 35 percent increase in Los Angeles? Highly doubtful.”

“The idea that police demoralization could have resulted in the kinds of homicide increases we’re talking about really strains credulity” — Richard Rosenfeld, professor of criminology

Alternate theories abound. David Abrams’s best guess: The pandemic upset the delicate balance between different gangs and organized criminals. Some may have returned from a self-imposed quarantine last summer to find their turf taken over, which might have led to fighting.

Others blame criminal justice reforms enacted across the country, including those by L.A. County District Attorney George Gascón. In May, for instance, Glendora police arrested and released the same man three different times for three different car thefts in a single day. The police blamed a new COVID-era policy of not jailing people arrested for certain low-level felonies.

There are also more guns on the street, and perhaps more important, there are higher-caliber weapons with higher-capacity magazines. That might explain why there are more shootings with multiple victims. But stabbings are also on the rise this year. Abrams believes the rise in shootings may be less about cops and more about the citizens they are charged with protecting. “Clearly, something is awry in the relationship between the police and the communities they serve,” says Abrams. “People are even less likely than before to cooperate with the police. Community justice takes hold. People take matters into their own hands.”

Whatever the reason for it, the rise in homicides has the potential to upend the current political dynamic in American cities. Crime became the central issue of New York City’s mayoral race, propelling former police officer Eric Adams to victory in the Democratic primary. Adams has called for more policing and defended policies like stop and frisk. L.A. will hold its own mayoral election in November 2022, and observers wonder if former cop Joe Buscaino will similarly benefit from the crime issue.

And then there’s Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who, mindful of the calls for him to resign, has taken to using the rise in crime as a means of retaining power. He has blamed the rise on “less cops, more crooks, less consequences.” His solution? He created a unit that will process concealed-carry permits faster.

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