As Yogi Berra once remarked, you can see a lot sometimes by just looking. After almost a decade of decline, homicide in Los Angeles is on the rise again. Before accepting any of the canned explanations, we ought to take a closer look. Once we know what's really going on, we have a chance to design strategies that work, rather than just grabbing at ready-made "solutions" for problems we may not even have.
There is a short list of usual suspects: growing tensions between African Americans and Latinos; the flood of prison inmates returning to their neighborhoods; and of course that old reliable, gangs.
Instead of just accepting these explanations, let's look at what facts we have.
- Most killings, here as elsewhere, are intra-racial. Overwhelmingly, people kill people they know, and the people who live near them. Ethnic patterns in Watts have changed markedly over the last 15 years, but there has been no growth in black-brown killings beyond what you'd expect from the fact that there are now more Latinos who live near African Americans, and vice versa. Eighty-five percent of all homicides in Watts are intra-racial. This year, the overall rate is up, but the proportion of homicides involving victims and offenders from the same group has remained constant. Maybe the citywide pattern is different, but before we accept the ethnic tension explanation, and make policy accordingly, we need some hard numbers.
- The people arrested as part of the massive drug sweeps of the early 1990s are now getting out of prison, and their return to their old neighborhoods is stirring up tensions. Drug sentences are long, but they're not that long. And since most homicide offenders are 24 or younger, anyone who started serving an adult sentence in the early 1990s is too old now to be much of a homicide threat.
- Gang violence. Sure, gang members kill, and get killed, at high rates, but that doesn't tell us what to do about it. We need answers to the operationally relevant questions: Who's killing whom, and why? Under what circumstances? What can stop it? Gang homicides over control of drug markets won't respond to the same interventions as gang violence rooted in historic turf or neighborhood rivalries.
In reality, right now nobody knows the real reasons behind the jump in homicides. Nevertheless, political leaders feel compelled to respond. The mayor proposes spending millions to clean up the parks. Not a terrible idea, considered on its own. There's even evidence that doing so tends to change the rate of disorderly behavior and nuisance crimes, by making those areas look less like free-fire zones. That in turn can reduce the level of violence.
But as a proposed solution to the problem we have right now, cleaning up the parks is beside the point. Is there any reason, other than blind faith, to believe that the killings we're experiencing now result from disorderly conditions?
There are proven solutions to the youth-homicide problem. Boston's spectacular success in this regard is now widely known: zero gun homicides by people under the age of 18 for two years after the Boston Gun Project started up. That project, a collaboration involving law enforcement, community groups and a university-based research and analysis team, depended on taking a careful look at the actual problem and then crafting a solution specifically for that problem.
In Boston's case, it really was inter-gang rivalry. The response was to threaten convincingly that any violence by a gang member would lead to a crackdown on the whole gang, using the resources and authority of the police, probation officers, prosecutors and juvenile and school authorities. Under that pressure, it turned out that the gangs could and did control the behavior of their own members, especially when the approach was supported by local community leaders tired of seeing their children shot.
Since the Los Angeles problem is probably different, we're likely to need a different solution. But the process ought to be the same. Discover, in as much detail as possible, what the real problem is and then figure out precisely what needs to be done about it and who has to get that done.
A group of public and private agencies, working with RAND researchers, is doing just this job in Hollenbeck. We've defined the problem clearly and identified its source: a code of honor that supports a cycle of retaliation. Now we're trying to figure out what to do about it.
The city should follow Hollenbeck's lead: Combine the street knowledge of community activists, residents and gang workers with the narratives in official LAPD homicide files to map the causes of violence throughout the city, then tailor neighborhood-specific responses based upon those findings. And let's do it before we see a real and lasting homicide epidemic.
George Tita, an assistant professor of criminology at UC Irvine, is a consultant with RAND and a member of the National Consortium on Violence Research. Mark A.R. Kleiman is a professor of policy studies and director of the Drug Policy Analysis Program at UCLA.
This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on December 27, 2000.