The Homicide Report

The Times chronicles L.A. County
homicide victims

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Are there a lot of homicides in Los Angeles?

March 5, 2007 |  2:45 pm

Not particularly, although it depends on the point of comparison.

To be sure, the raw number of homicides is large, making for a lengthy list on The Homicide Report. But that's mostly because of the size of the population. Big populations make for big statistics; thus L.A. County accounted for 43% of the total number of homicides in California in 2005, and about 6% of all the homicides in the nation.

Measured as a rate per capita, though, the number of homicides here is pretty middling. Among major cities, L.A. city ranked 16th in the nation in homicide rates, according to a list compiled by the Los Angeles Police Department. (L.A. County's rates are similar to the city's.)

With about 13 deaths annually for every 100,000 people last year, the city of L.A. was tied with San Francisco and Boston in the rankings, and placed just a hair above Denver. Detroit, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Baltimore, and Kansas City, Mo., all ranked higher.

L.A. looks even better when its demographics are taken into account. A recent study funded by the National Institute of Justice found that when homicide rates are adjusted for several factors, such as poverty, unemployment and the percentage of blacks in the population, the city of L.A. ranked 39th on a list of 67 American cities.

In short, our high-risk demographics (lots of poverty, lots of single-parent homes) put us at a disadvantage with wealthier, whiter cities such as San Diego, which are blessed with low homicide numbers thanks in part to low-risk demographics.

But even so, we do fairly well. "I wouldn't think to characterize L.A. as a major homicide place," said Al Blumstein, criminologist at Carnegie Mellon University.

Los Angeles' homicide rates today also compare favorably with rates in the past. In 1992 and 1993, peak years of a national homicide epidemic, the rates were easily double what they are today. There are, on average, almost three homicides daily in Los Angeles County now; six per day was the average back then. Downward trends have continued: The decrease in county-wide homicides between 2005 and 2006 was 6%.

But there remains a grim side to this picture. Los Angeles homicide rates are nowhere as low as New York City's, and like most American cities, L.A.'s homicide rate is much higher than that of surrounding suburbs and small cities. The average national homicide rate hovers between 5 and 6 deaths per 100,000 yearly, which is less than half the L.A. city rate.

Moreover, citywide and countywide homicide rates are deceiving because, like all big cities, Los Angeles County is a combination of safe and dangerous neighborhoods. Areas with very few homicides, such as Brentwood, Malibu, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Woodland Hills form a patchwork with areas with a lot of homicides, such as Compton, South-Central, Watts, Crenshaw and Athens.

The differences are so extreme that they render the county- and citywide rates almost meaningless. The Los Angeles Police Department's Southeast Division in Watts, for example, had a homicide rate of 45 deaths per 100,000 people last year, triple the citywide average.

West Los Angeles, meanwhile, had a homicide rate of less than 1 death per 100,000--so low that people living there might as well be living in Europe. Such high- and low-homicide neighborhoods cancel each other out, producing a medium rate overall. But this may be little comfort to people in neighborhoods where homicide rates quite literally parallel those of Third World countries.

In general, statistics don't argue strongly for viewing Los Angeles as an exception. Our bad neighborhoods are likely similar to bad neighborhoods in other large American cities, and the people most at risk of being victimized here--young male adults of minority background--would also be at risk elsewhere.

So when you scroll down the list of victims on The Homicide Report, think of what you see not as an L.A. problem but as an American one. You are looking at the local version of a longstanding national homicide problem.