Virgil Avenue camp under the 101 freeway. LA Observed file photo.
Back in the 1980s and '90s, crime was often the top issue mentioned by Los Angeles voters in polls — and if the current upward trend continues, it wouldn't be unexpected to see fear of crime play out again in local politics, real estate values and things like ridership on the new light-rail lines. (Already, some women say that unchecked sexual harassment is a reason they don't ride Metro if they can avoid it.) In a piece on the LA Times Op-ed page, author Joe Domanick isn't surprise at the turn in crime and makes the case for poverty and inequality mixing with demographics (more people of the prime crime-committing age) to explain the rise. He also discusses some of the other possible reasons being talked about, such as the cyclical nature of crime, the spread of the new heroin addiction into LA and the re-calibration of LAPD crime stats after the Times investigation that found the department was under-counting serious assaults. Domanick's new book is "Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing."
From his piece:
After more than a decade of decline, violent crime in Los Angeles rose more than 20% during the first half of 2015, with felony assaults up 26% and robberies up 19%. Why, no one yet definitively knows. But there's plenty of speculation….
But I'd like to take an educated guess on what might be the key factor causing L.A. crime to rise: Something may be happening akin to the eras of the Watts riots of 1965, the high-crime crack war years of the 1980s and early '90s, and the 1992 Los Angeles riots. And it's this: a new Gilded Age of obscene wealth, stunning, low-wage income disparity and grinding poverty have come together to make ghetto and barrio life ever more desperate. As a result, the steam is once again pressing against the engine cap, just as it did during those infamous times.
In the 15 years since 2000, a new generation of L.A.'s ever-expanding legion of the poor has grown into their teens and early 20s — the prime crime-committing years — and come of age in the fierce, dog-eat-dog economy of the Great Recession. They have faced gasoline prices hovering around $5 a gallon, $13 movie tickets, a bag of groceries costing twice as much as six or seven years ago, and trouble finding even stagnant low-wage jobs or seats at overcrowded community colleges.
Simultaneously, housing in Los Angeles has become the most expensive in the nation, as gentrification is pushing the city's poor and miserably paid out of their neighborhoods, increasingly with no place to go. Those who remain are living in what social scientists call "severely overcrowded homes," while services for the poor dwindle. All are incubators of desperation and criminal behavior.
The most vivid example of all this are L.A.'s homeless, the number of whom, like crime, is on a steep rise — up 16% in Los Angeles County, while skid row homeless housing is all but disappearing, also due to gentrification.
He notes that in police divisions such as Wilshire, Hollywood and Central, the number of homeless on the streets is rising along with the crime rate. He's not suggesting (I don't think) that the homeless themselves are behind all the burglaries and attacks being reported, but that their visible presence is a marker of something bigger going on. "In short, L.A.'s crime rise seems to be part of the same-old-same-old double-downed: raw poverty and rising crime again coming together in an era of astounding, Third World-like income disparity, declining social services and desperate poverty. We can continue to deny that undeniable truth. But the data are in, the pilot programs and studies completed."
Domanick, a longtime journalist in LA, is now West Coast bureau chief of TheCrimeReport.org and associate director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York.