Let’s be honest – and smart – about the rise in homicides in LA

LOS ANGELES, CALIF.  - DEC.  7, 2021. A child lights a candle under a guard for three people who was shot near Wilmington Park Elementary School on December 6, 2021. A 13-year-old boy was killed in the shooting and a nine-year-old girl was injured.  Police asked the community for help in tracking down the perpetrator.  (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

A child lights a candle under a guard for three people who were shot near Wilmington Park Elementary School on Dec. 6, including a 12-year-old boy who was killed. (Luis Sinco)

Los Angeles soon closes its second year in a row with rising homicides, with the largest number of homicides in more than a decade. Fatal shootings of children during the holiday season can seem particularly cruel; the killings in December in LA include a 14-year-old boy outside a Boyle Heights recreation center on Dec. 7 and a 12-year-old boy outside a Wilmington elementary school on Dec. 6.

We must now also reckon with the murder of a 14-year-old girl who was shot and killed in a locker room at a Burlington store in North Hollywood on December 23rd. on a suspect who was armed with a bicycle lock, not a gun; yet it is tragically intertwined with the ongoing debate over whether the police keep people safer than they harm them.

The leap into killing is sober. Just two years ago, California marked its lowest ever recorded crime rate, and LA completed its 10th year in a row where homicides were not at 300. But that remission is over and we are in danger of reaching 400 homicides by the end of years. The city is in the midst of twin pandemics, both fatal, one killing us with a virus and the other most often with bullets.

There are several ways to go wrong in responding to such violence, and one is to deny or minimize it. Violence certainly affects not only the dead, their families and their neighborhoods. It extends beyond the city limits and across age and socioeconomic lines to include victims like philanthropist Jacqueline Avant, 81, shot dead in her home in Beverly Hills. While violent attacks kill, they also injure, as is the case with a 9-year-old girl on a playground and an adult woman in a car, wounded in the Wilmington shooting. Homicide affects our economy, our quality of life and our collective psyche, all things that were already under the cruel abuse of COVID-19. We must treat the most directly affected with care and compassion. We must stop the spread. We need to avoid quacks and conspiracy theories and develop treatments that work. We must find a lasting cure.

It is natural that many of us will ask, “Who (or what) did this?” And that’s a fair question. We do not solve the problem of increasing killings without knowing the cause. Yet some in law enforcement, in elected offices, and elsewhere blame the rise in homicides as they blame all crime, on reforms of criminal justice in California – which is not the cause. A higher level of thinking is in order.

Experience and data teach us that public safety and public health are closely linked and that one is not possible without the other. They teach us that the ingredients for both include properly selected, trained and supervised police, in sufficient numbers, because public health officials and police both deal with falls from the same societal problems – mental health breakdown, drug abuse, inadequate housing, education and employment.

The police must be able to recognize public health problems and work closely enough with health officials to refer problems to them. They teach us that the police are only part of the equation and that we can not expect them to take care of our safety alone, just as doctors or nurses can stop coronavirus without medical scientists, public health specialists or our own common sense. inoculated and protect each other with masks at the right time and place.

Experience also reminds us that without the right selection, training, tactics and supervision, the police can be part of the problem we hire them to solve. Think, for example, of the Long Beach school security officer who is charged with murder for killing an 18-year-old woman when he fired his gun at a car in September. Or the former Brooklyn Center, Minn., Police officer recently convicted of manslaughter for the murder of Daunte Wright in April while allegedly confusing her gun with a Taser. Or former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin, who killed George Floyd a year earlier.

And now, tragically, the LAPD officer who shot a round that went through a locker room wall in the Burlington store and killed 14-year-old Valentina Orellana-Peralta.

Los Angeles is not the whole universe. Kills here are rising, but not as fast as in other major U.S. cities. Our increase of 51% over the last two years is compared to a jump of 60% in Chicago, 78% in Houston, 109% in Portland, Ore. Yet the misery of other cities offers no consolation.

Some social scientists have argued that crime is like a social infection that can be spread through communities. There is controversy about that. What is indisputable is that both health and murder crises require a comprehensive response.

Both can easily, without wisdom, leadership and compassion, obscure our thinking. We can not afford that. Not if we want to end this plague and get back on the path to health and safety.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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