The Homicide Report is a weekly listing of all homicide victims reported by the Los Angeles County coroner, combined with updates every few days from law enforcement agencies of new homicides not yet listed. Any human being who dies at the hand of another in Los Angeles County, and whose death is recorded by the coroner, is included in the report.
The report seeks to reverse an age-old paradox of big-city crime reporting, which dictates that only the most unusual and statistically marginal homicide cases receive press coverage, while those cases at the very eye of the storm -- those which best expose the true statistical dimensions of the problem of deadly violence -- remain hidden.
Selective news coverage is a practical necessity for most news organizations operating in a county where nearly 1,100 people die from homicide yearly. The Los Angeles Times, for example, is limited by the number of pages it prints, and in a recent year, found room for stories on fewer than 10% of L.A. County homicides, according to an analysis by a Times researcher. Such selectivity ensures that the people and places most affected by homicides are least likely to be seen, while the safest people are inundated with information about crimes unlikely to ever touch their lives.
In L.A., people understand this paradox well, as numerous letters to the Homicide Report attest. When a celebrity's wife or girlfriend is killed in Brentwood or Studio City, or when a female student is killed in Westwood, we know reaction will be swift. Such cases, catastrophic in their own right, traditionally generate a forceful response--not just from the press, but also from politicians, activists, institutions and the general public.
But Angelenos also know that not all suffer equally from homicide. Night after night, vastly higher numbers of young men, most of them black or Latino, many with criminal records, are shot in drive-by shootings in Lynwood, Compton, Watts, South-Central Los Angeles, Willowbrook, Westlake, Boyle Heights, or any of a number of neighborhoods in the county long associated with relatively high crime rates.
We know the press takes little notice of these deaths. Immense private heartbreak and shattering communal events are thus rendered footnotes or ephemera, while the phenomenon of routine killing in the public streets of a major, first-world city is diffused into virtual invisibility. The public comprehends there is an elephant in the room, but is never given more than a glimpse of its massive bulk; meanwhile the press focuses on a toenail, or the tip of a trunk.
With The Homicide Report, however, The Times seeks to exploit the advantages of the web to eliminate selectivity in homicide coverage and give readers a more complete picture of who dies from homicide, where, and why -- thus conveying both the personal story and the statistical story with greater accuracy.
Why does the Homicide Report give the race of victims and suspects?
The Homicide Report includes information on race or ethnicity in its weekly lists of homicide victims issued by the Los Angeles County coroner, as well as the name, gender and age of each victim, and the time, place and manner of death. A number of readers have asked why race is included. Some have criticized the practice.
Racial information was once routinely included in news stories about crimes, but in recent decades, newspapers and other media outlets stopped mentioning suspects' or victims' race or ethnicity because of public criticism. Newspapers came to embrace the idea that such information is irrelevant to the reporting of crimes, and may unfairly stigmatize racial groups.
The Homicide Report departs from this rule in the interest of presenting the most complete and accurate demographic picture of who is at risk of dying from homicide in Los Angeles County.
Race and ethnicity, like age and gender, are stark predictors of homicide risk. Blacks are vastly more likely to die from homicide than whites, and Latinos somewhat more likely. Black men, in particular, are extraordinarily vulnerable: They are 4% of this country's population, but, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they represented 35% of homicide victims nationally in 2004. Local numbers mirror these national disparities. According to an analysis for The Times by county health officials of homicide data between 1991 and 2002, Latino men ages 20 to 24 were five times more likely than white men the same age to die, and black men were 16 times more likely.
The Homicide Report recognizes the peril of dehumanizing victims by reducing their lives and deaths to a few scant facts--particularly racial designations which provide only the roughest markers of ancestry and history. But given the magnitude of difference in homicide risk along racial and ethnic lines--and the extremity of suffering which homicide inflicts on subsets of the population--we opt here to present information which lays bare racial and ethnic contours of the problem so conspicuous in the coroner's data. The goal is to promote understanding, and honor a basic journalistic principle: Tell the truth about who suffers.
As you read The Homicide Report, keep in mind the racial breakdown of the population of Los Angeles County. We are, according to the Census Bureau, about 47% Latino, 29% white, 12% Asian and 9% black. If homicide were distributed equally among racial groups, not quite half the victims included in The Homicide Report's weekly listings from the coroner would be Latino, and fewer than one in 10 would be black.
Why Does The Homicide Report List Killings by Police?
Any death of a human being by the hand of another is included in The Homicide Report.
This is the Los Angeles County coroner's definition of homicide. The definition wraps in both criminal homicides and justifiable homicides by police, as well as justifiable homicides by civilians acting in self- defense.
The coroner's investigation, which is separate from a police investigation, is what determines how the case is categorized. Coroner's investigators take intent, as well as other factors, into account. To the coroner, the word "homicide" is a medical examiner's term of art, not a legal concept, said coroner's spokesman Craig Harvey. "If the D.A. chooses to file charges, or not file charges, it's of no concern to the coroner," he said.
That's why vehicular homicide and manslaughter cases often don't qualify. The exception is cases in which a driver had a clear intent--in the eyes of the coroner's investigators--to use a car as a waepon to kill another human being. Thus, the victims of the Santa Monica Farmers' Market crash were not labeled homicide victims by the coroner, although the driver was prosecuted. But Joseph Mendoza, who was killed Feb. 14 when a fistfight escalated into an apparently deliberate car-versus-pedestrian assault, was listed by the coroner as a homicide victim.
The same accounting method is used by the Centers for Disease Control for its national mortality reports. The method differs from that used by the FBI, which collects data from law enforcement agencies. The inclusion of justifiable homicides, police killings, and other deaths not listed by law enforcement as homicides, means that the Centers for Disease Control routinely places homicide numbers at a higher point than the FBI does. In 2004, for example, the CDC reported more than 17,300 homicides; the FBI that same year reported 16,137.
The Homicide Report presents this larger data set. It is not a catalog of first-degree murder cases but rather a measure of lethal conflict between human beings in any form.
That includes cases in which a police officer is menaced with a deadly weapon, and fires back in his or her own defense. The Homicide Report presents such incidents simply as a fatal encounters between human beings. Thus, victims can be instigators and still make the Homicide Report. They need only to be dead to qualify. There is, as Harvey said, "no judgment on it."
Are there a lot of homicides in Los Angeles?
A note to readers: This portion of the FAQ was written in 2007, and all figures should be taken in that context. We will attempt to update this document with more current information as time allows.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.
Are Black vs. Brown race tensions driving homicide?
A note to readers: This portion of the FAQ was written in 2007, and all figures should be taken in that context. We will attempt to update this document with more current information as time allows.No. A few high-profile cases, including the suspected racially motivated killing of 14-year-old Cheryl Green in LAPD's Harbor Division, have fueled speculation of rising racial conflict in L.A. But among detectives and police officers who deal daily with homicides, the prevailing view is that the race problem--for now, anyway--remains marginal. "I don't think it's there," says Watts homicide Det. Chris Barling. Det. John Radtke, a South-Central homicide investigator, agrees. "We don't see it happening," he says. Statistics back them up.
Take the four most violent Los Angeles police precincts--Newton, 77th Street, Southwest and Southeast.
These racially mixed divisions cover South-Central Los Angeles and surrounding areas and consistently rank highest in homicides among the 19 LAPD precincts. Last year they accounted for nearly half of all the murders in the city.
But out of a total of 236 homicides in these four divisions last year, just 22 involved Latinos killing blacks, or blacks killing Latinos.
The vast majority--nearly 90%--involved suspects and victims of the same race. In a few other cases, the suspects are unknown, and could represent disparate races. But even in those--a mix of stray-bullet, gang- and narcotic-related killings--race is not believed to be a motive.
Detectives puzzled by racial homogeneity
In areas patrolled by the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, too, the pattern of killings on the street is “almost the opposite” of the picture lately highlighted in the media, sheriff's Cmdr. Pete Amico says.
The tilt is so far the other way that some homicide investigators say what actually perplexes them is how little racial crossover there is in killings.
Same-race murder predominates even where blacks and Latinos mix the most. In LAPD’s Southeast Division in Watts, for example, the population is at least 56% Latino and 40% black, according to U.S. Census numbers. But of 70 homicides reported there last year, only one was confirmed as black-on-Latino. No Latino-on-black killings occurred at all.
To be sure, tension between blacks and Latinos does exist in L.A., and a few murders result. For example, a string of racially motivated gang killings in Highland Park in the late 1990s went to trial in federal court last year.
And detectives think the December killing by Latino gang members of Cheryl Green, who was black, was as purely race-driven as a crime can get. The subsequent killing of a witness in that case, and an unrelated racial beating case in Long Beach, has further inflamed public concern about racial violence.
But even in LAPD’s Harbor Division, where Green was killed, racial murder is an aberration.
Of the 20 homicides in the Harbor City-area precinct last year, only one other is confirmed to have involved Latino suspects and a black victim. That case had to do with a drug deal, not race, said Det. Jim Perkins, supervisor of Harbor's homicide squad.
In two other cases the suspects are unknown and may be of different races. But in general, Perkins said, Harbor-area killings involve Latino gangs fighting other Latino gangs over territory.
Where the trend is going is hard to gauge. Law enforcement officials throughout the county describe a fairly stable mix of Latino-vs.-Latino and black-vs.-black homicides over the years, punctuated by a few scattered skirmishes between gangs of different races, especially in border areas.
The sheriff’s Firestone area had one such flare-up two years ago. The dispute, purportedly over a drug deal, became so violent and so racially charged that black gangs began hunting Latinos indiscriminately and vice versa, said Sheriff’s Lt. Joe Hartshorne. At least two noncombatants--an older man and a fruit vendor--were killed simply because of race, he said.
More common, though, are black-vs.-Latino gang wars over traditional gang issues--such as territory or revenge, said Det. Kelle Baitx, of LAPD’s Newton Division. “It’s on gang lines. It’s territory, not a race thing,” he said.
Cross-racial homicide motives
Sometimes, black/Latino gang fights suggest as much about racial integration as they do about hostility.
Perkins, the Harbor detective, recalled two such conflicts in his division in recent years:
In one, a black and Latino gang had long agreed to share their drug territory, but a fight broke out over which gang could sell during the day and which at night. Retaliatory shootings played out for months.
In another, a local Latino gang that had welcomed black members was ordered by Mexican gang higher-ups to kick them out, and two people were killed, Perkins said.
Elsewhere, the smattering of black-vs.-Latino killings usually involve motives identical to those driving same-race killings.
In 77th Street Division, for example, a traditionally black Crip gang had welcomed a Latino into their midst, said Radtke, the 77th Street detective. The Latino Crip was later killed as the result of in-house gang argument.
In Newton Division, a black man killed a Latino neighbor in a dispute over loud music, and a Latino man killed a black acquaintance who had criticized his parenting style. There also have been recent black/Latino killings arising from narcotics deals, robberies, parties, insults and fights over women--all garden-variety motives common to same-race murders.
The fact that homicide seldom crosses racial lines here is not unique to L.A. Nationally, whites mostly kill whites, blacks mostly kill blacks, etc. It's been that way for a long time, both here and in the rest of the nation. “When you look at the trends, you don’t see tremendous change,” said Marianne Zawitz, statistician with the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Concern is warranted
Still, there’s reason for concern, Radtke says.
Racial strife is rampant in prisons, he says, and drug-market competition between Latino gangs and black gangs could someday come to a head.
Black gangs are shrinking as Latino ones grow, he says, and while a balance of power may be keeping the status quo in place for now, authorities should keep watch. “I’m actually glad there has been such a response to the Harbor case,” Radtke says. Gangs that provoke racial conflict “should have the full force of the government on them.”
But other investigators are frustrated by what they call over-hyped stories of rising violence between races. “Crime here is race on race,” says Barling, the Watts detective. “The politicians always miss it.”