The Mystery of LA's Free-Fallin' Murder Rate

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I live in Los Angeles, but for the most part I stick to reading the New York Times. I only pick up (or click over to) the LA Times when I want to find out what heinous crimes have gone down in my immediate vicinity recently. I can usually count on a corpse or two in the Venice Canals, troupes of campers killed by mudslides in the hills (this happened on Christmas Day in 2003), or that most American of urban crimes, the ever-dependable drive-by.

But when I flipped open the local rag a few days ago, I learned something more shocking than any of that: there were fewer murders in 2010. Less than 300, in fact, which is the lowest number of killings we've had since 1967, when the population was almost 30% smaller than it is today. Just to put that in perspective a bit for anybody who's worried about sending their kids to college out here, or their upcoming vacation to Disneyland, that's lower than Columbus, Ohio. And Indianapolis. And Oklahoma City. And more than a dozen other American cities. (Topping the list, not surprisingly, are New Orleans and Detroit.)

So what's with all the not-murdering? Well, it seems the police are a little baffled on that point, too, but despite joblessness and the sputtering economy and the numbers of cops on the street beginning to erode thanks to California's fiscal crisis, the city seems to have entered into a kind of peaceful lull. Some experts have a theory as to why: there hasn't been a drug epidemic of late. In fact, according to Columbia University Law School Professor Jeffrey Fagan, the "three distinct periods in U.S. history when homicides have spiked coincide with the emergence of heroin, powder cocaine and crack cocaine, each of which gave rise to 'a chaotic, violent street drug culture.'" Also, gang-intervention techniques may finally be showing some results, since gang-related killings usually account for about half of all murders in LA.

Whatever the reason, it's nice to start the new year off with some good news.

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January 3, 2011 - 5:48am
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