Thursday, December 28, 2006

Decline in L.A. Crime Validates Chief Bratton Plan

This Los Angeles Times report indicates that crime in Los Angeles has decreased for the fifth straight year, a trend that is validating Police Chief William Bratton's theory of crime prevention:

Crime in Los Angeles dropped for the fifth consecutive year in 2006, bucking trends both for the nation and in other regions of Southern California, where violent offenses are increasing.

Crime numbers reviewed Tuesday show that as of late December, total crime across Los Angeles was down about 8%, with major drops in burglaries, car thefts, rapes and assaults.

Homicides dropped about 4%, from 487 in 2005 to 464 as of Dec. 23 this year, according to Los Angeles Police Department statistics. The only crime to rise in 2006 was robbery, up 6% to 13,943 incidents.

The crime numbers boost the prestige of Police Chief William J. Bratton at a time when he is seeking a second five-year term and writing a book about how other cities can combat crime.

"You can't be lucky seven times in a row. If I was, I'd be making a living hanging out at the blackjack table," the chief said Tuesday, noting that crime dropped not only during his tenure as police chief in Los Angeles but also when he was chief in Boston and New York.

Bratton has long sparred with some criminologists, who question how much credit the LAPD — or any other police agency — can really take for crime declines. They believe falling crime is caused by myriad factors, including the economy, demographics and urban gentrification.

But on Tuesday, even some skeptics were tipping their hats to the chief, saying five straight years of decline clearly shows the LAPD is doing something right.

"Bratton has focused on gangs, guns, and drugs," said University of Chicago law professor Bernard E. Harcourt, who was co-author last year of a paper dealing with Bratton's record in New York that provoked the chief's ire. "And I think we are seeing that it has paid off. Larger national trends affecting major U.S. cities are obviously contributing to the declines, but Bratton's focus … has proven successful."

James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University in Boston, agreed, adding: "There is no external factor that would explain such a large decline. It has to do with crime prevention and crime control at the local level."
The piece notes some key points in Bratton's approach:

Bratton was appointed LAPD chief in late 2002 and set out to remake a department plagued by charges of officer misconduct steaming from the Rodney G. King beating and Rampart Division corruption scandal.

Bratton pushed to rethink the way the department tackled crime, using the CompStat computer mapping system to help pinpoint crime trends and identify specific areas that require more policing. He moved more officers into areas with severe gang problems. At the same time, he told officers to focus on smaller crimes like vandalism that he believe might eventually lead to larger ones.

Bratton had used many of these strategies when he was police commissioner in New York in the early 1990s and won wide praise for decreases in crime there.

But some academics have questioned how big a role police tactics play in crime drops.Harcourt, the law professor, was co-author of an article saying that crime in New York would have fallen even without Bratton's techniques because he believes that crime that goes up will naturally go back down.

Bratton shot back, co-writing a National Review article taking to task ivory tower academics," who have "never sat in a patrol car, walked or bicycled a beat, lived in or visited regularly troubled violent neighborhoods."

On Tuesday, Bratton credited his police officers with reducing crime in Los Angeles but said the city needs more of them."Cops count," Bratton said. "The issue in Los Angeles is that there haven't been enough of them."

Bratton's crime-fighting plan draws on the research of eminent political scientist James Q. Wilson. Back in 1982, Wilson, along with George L. Kelling, laid out the "broken windows" theory of crime prevention in an Atlantic Monthly article. The theory argues that the prevention of serious crime is facilitated by aggressively enforcing smaller infractions, such as vagrancy, subway fare violations, public drunkeness, and so forth. The theory's analogy is to a broken window, which left unfixed encourages additional acts of vandalism. Thus, it's better to address problems early, before more significant issues arise later.

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