Kevin Rector et al., Los Angeles Times, December 4, 2021
Crews of burglars publicly smashing their way into Los Angeles’ most exclusive stores. Robbers following their victims, including a star of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” and a BET host, to their residences. And this week, the fatal shooting of 81-year-old Jacqueline Avant, an admired philanthropist and wife of music legend Clarence Avant, in her Beverly Hills home.
After two years of rising violent crime in Los Angeles, these incidents have sparked a national conversation and led to local concern about both the crimes themselves and where the outrage over the violence will lead.
While overall city crime rates remain far below records set during the notorious gang wars of the 1990s, violent crime has jumped sharply in L.A., as it has in other cities. Much of the violence has occurred in poor communities and among vulnerable populations, such as the homeless, and receives little attention.
However, since the start of the pandemic and more rapidly in recent months, crime has crept up in wealthier enclaves and thrust its way to the center of public discourse in L.A. — against a backdrop of COVID-19 angst, evolving political perceptions of what role police and prosecutors should play in society and, now, a holiday season upon which brick-and-mortar retailers are relying to stay afloat.
Some wonder if this could be a turning point for California, which for decades has been at the center of the movement for criminal justice reform, rolling back tough sentencing laws and reducing prison populations.
Polls in 2020 showed that California voters largely support many of these measures, and both San Francisco and Los Angeles have elected district attorneys with strong reform agendas. However, those concerned about crime and those who believe liberal policies have contributed to its rise have grown more vocal.
It is a discourse defined by glaring differences of opinion and, at times, a yawning disconnect between the perception of local crime and the reality on the ground.
Dominick DeLuca, owner of the Brooklyn Projects skateboard shop on Melrose Avenue, a commercial corridor that has seen burglaries and robberies spike sharply in recent months, said things have gotten so bad that he carries a gun to work — and desperately wants ramped-up enforcement.
“I have never seen anything like it,” he said. “In the last two years, I have been broken into three times.”
At a Thursday press conference, Mayor Eric Garcetti and Los Angeles Police Department Chief Michel Moore said more offenders should be locked up and questioned pandemic-related policies that have allowed many nonviolent arrestees to be released without bail.
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón, whose progressive policies around prosecution and sentencing many blame for the uptick in crime, was notably absent at the press conference but said through his office that he is working closely with law enforcement partners to hold perpetrators accountable for such brazen crimes.
The heightened rhetoric marks a departure from language shared by many of the same officials just last year, after George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer. This has set off alarms among activists who led protests, want to see progressive justice measures enacted and hear echoes of past eras when, they believe, the overhyping of crime led to overpolicing and excessive incarceration.
“They’re trying to move us backward,” said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles. “We don’t want to move backward; we want to move forward.”
More concerning is violent crime. Homicides are up 46.7% compared with 2019, while shooting victims are up 51.4%, according to police data. As of the end of November, there had been 359 homicides in L.A. in 2021, compared with 355 in all of 2020. There have not been more homicides in one year since 2008, which ended with 384.
It’s not clear what reforms the concerns about crime in the Los Angeles area will lead to — if any.
A crime spike in the 1990s led California to adopt policies that toughened sentences and increased incarceration. The reform movement was an acknowledgment that those policies went too far and caused their own injustices. A poll of L.A. voters released this week showed that public safety is perceived as less of a pressing problem than homelessness, housing affordability, traffic, climate change and air quality.
Jonathan Simon, a criminal justice professor at UC Berkeley’s law school and author of “Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear,” said it is unlikely that crime concerns will completely derail the progressive criminal justice reform movement that began with Floyd’s killing.