Kevin Rector, Los Angeles Times, January 3, 2021
As commanding officer of the Los Angeles Police Department’s data-driven Compstat division, Capt. Paul Vernon’s job is to track crime trends in L.A. — highlighting problems and pinpointing solutions in order to optimize the department’s effectiveness.
It has not been easy this year, he said, as crime — like so much in 2020 — went absolutely haywire.
Homicides, shootings and car thefts spiked, while robberies, rapes and lesser property crimes dropped off. The swings were dramatic, too, with killings hitting a decade high after years of sustained reductions, and shootings increasing nearly 40%. Meanwhile, robberies declined by 17%, and reported rapes fell 25%.
The COVID-19 pandemic — which has kept many businesses closed and many people at home — was clearly a major factor, though analysts say the full explanation is more complex.
Eager to understand what was happening, Vernon plotted the largest shifts along a timeline of major 2020 events, including the arrival of COVID-19 in California, the government’s stay-at-home orders and this summer’s mass protests against police brutality.
He landed on several theories as to what may be driving the changes — such as a reduction in overall movement, strains in illicit drug markets, more gunmen opening fire on rivals at close range and police officers being stretched thin in high-crime areas amid citywide emergencies, operational changes and officers quarantining or missing work due to illness.
Still, in a year of such intense upheaval, potential factors were everywhere, Vernon said, and little was clear about the exact causes of any particular swing — or whether crime would revert to pre-COVID patterns once vaccines roll out and the world regains balance.
What is most clear is that the pandemic played a massive role: Everything changed in March.
Through January and February 2020, gun violence was slightly elevated over the same period in 2019. Other crime was relatively flat. Then, the state issued its shutdown order as COVID-19 began to creep into local communities, and crime patterns radically shifted.
Suddenly, property crime began dropping as businesses shuttered and people stayed home. Street robberies fell as people were “no longer out on the street to be walking targets,” Vernon said. Assaults, including sexual assaults, dipped, and other violent crime appeared to slow as well.
To some observers, the trends seemed counterintuitive, given the fear that property crimes would rise as Los Angeles was battered by retail closures and unemployment that at times approached 20%.
However, for a brief period, the only real exception to the decline in crime was car theft. With vehicles left parked for weeks at a time, and fewer people outside, cars were easy targets, police said. They noted that suspects, some homeless, were stealing cars and dumping them nearby — joyriding as much as anything else. They also saw individuals who were arrested for stealing cars get released back into the community under new rules to stem the spread of COVID-19 in jails, then get arrested again for the same crime.
As the weather began to warm, shootings and homicides started spiking, and fast. The increases intensified as the summer progressed and have largely continued ever since, with a brief September lull offset by intense bouts of bloodshed in recent weeks.
In late November, the city surpassed 300 homicides in a single calendar year, for the first time since 2009. One week in December saw 14 homicides and 45 shooting victims, versus four homicides and 17 shootings in the same week in 2019. On Friday morning, the unofficial tally of 2020 homicides stood at 349 — an increase of nearly 38%, and almost 100 victims, from the previous year.
Vernon said data suggest that more gunmen are getting out of their cars and shooting multiple targets at once, at close range, and that more people are driving around with guns at the ready. Both trends suggest to him that gunmen in L.A. are simply less afraid of being caught by police than they used to be — which he blames in part on a decision to reduce pretextual stops in high-crime neighborhoods after criticism about racial profiling, and in part on major protests this year that drew police resources away from those neighborhoods.
As of the start of December, arrests and police stops were both down more than 25% from 2019, with violent crime arrests down more than 11%. Calls for service were down about 5%.
LAPD Chief Michel Moore largely halted the practice of pulling over random vehicles — often in predominantly Black and Latino communities — after a Times investigation raised questions about their efficacy. Moore at the time said the practice was not effective, netting about one arrest for every 100 cars stopped.
Police officials also have pointed to gang violence as a major factor in the increased shootings in 2020, which have commanded growing attention from city and community leaders in recent weeks, and say it should serve as a warning to City Council members and other officials of what may come if they continue down a path of laying off police officers amid the city’s growing financial woes.
Moore said the city has seen shootings and homicides rise most dramatically in “the very disadvantaged neighborhoods most impacted by the pandemic,” which have been predominantly Black and Latino.
The LAPD’s budget was cut by $150 million this summer, as protests raged, and the department is planning for more than 350 officer layoffs as part of an effort by city leaders to close a $650-million deficit caused by the pandemic’s economic devastation.
The increased violence has been a major talking point among leaders of the city’s police union in arguing against such cuts; they say Los Angeles is playing with fire by reducing police ranks at precisely the wrong time.