On August 15, 2022, an intersection in South Central Los Angeles fell prey to a particularly Southern Californian form of anarchy. Parked vehicles blocked the crossroad to through traffic, while inside the blockade, cars sped in tight circles, their burning tires emitting acrid smoke. Just after midnight, spectators to this “street takeover” stormed into a nearby 7-Eleven. They grabbed whatever lay closest to hand—candy, soft drinks, chips—jumped over the payment counter to get at cigarettes and lottery tickets, and pelted the lone salesclerk, cowering underneath the counter, with bananas and other items. The vandals live-streamed the mayhem from their smartphones. An hour earlier, a teenager had been fatally shot during a nearby street takeover.
Mass looting, in the post–George Floyd era, is hardly confined to California, but the sense of entitlement manifest in August’s double whammy of road and retail lawlessness is the signal feature of the state’s twin plagues of crime and vagrancy. California is being brought down by what one can call the Great Abdication. The law-abiding and the hardworking are no longer the main concern of public officials; instead, the interests of the lawless and the deviant prevail. Policy revolves around their alleged needs, not the needs of those whom they assault and encumber. The result of the Great Abdication has been brazen violence and streets mired in squalor.
You know street crime is bad when even rap celebrities complain about it. “Where I’m from, we like sneaky criminals. In L.A. . . . they bold!” opined Philadelphia rapper PnB Rock during a September 2, 2022, podcast. The day before, fellow rapper Wakko the Kid had been shot outside his North Hollywood house. The Kid had just returned home from a recording session when two men exited a parked car, yanked off his $80,000 necklace, and pumped 16 bullets into him and his audio engineer (both men survived). In February 2020, Brooklyn rapper Pop Smoke had been killed during a home invasion in the Hollywood Hills.
PnB Rock’s interlocutor on the podcast, DJ Akademiks, agreed with PnB’s assessment of the city’s robbers. “L.A.’s spooky, man,” Akademiks said. “I’m seeing mad videos, like they don’t even do it at night. . . . Broad daylight, that’s when they really do it.” A little over a week later, PnB Rock would himself be killed during a broad-daylight robbery at Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles in South Central Los Angeles. The assailant demanded PnB’s jewelry, fatally shot him when he resisted, and then grabbed his necklace anyway.
These rap stars had posted their diamond bling, luxury cars, and wads of cash on social media, often with location tags on the live photos. But less publicity-hungry residents have found themselves targeted as well, marked in upscale restaurants and bars and followed home, where they are assaulted exiting their cars. On January 7, 2022, in a typical scenario, a couple was followed into their parking garage in West Hollywood after a meal in a high-end restaurant and robbed at gunpoint in an elevator; that same day, the same thieves followed a man home to Burbank from Hollywood and robbed him as he got out of his car. The thieves committed at least three more follow-home robberies over the next two months, part of a wave of such crimes then inundating the Los Angeles basin.
Dining and grocery shopping have also become risky activities in Southern California. In September 2022, an Israeli family was despoiled of their jewelry while seated at a sidewalk café on Los Angeles’s trendy Melrose Avenue, part of a three-hour crime spree that included three other such armed robberies by the same gang. In July 2022, two thugs pistol-whipped a couple in the parking lot of an Asian supermarket in the San Gabriel Valley (adjacent to L.A.) before making off with a $60,000 Rolex and cash. “Our families came to Los Angeles in 1976, and this is the worst we have ever seen in terms of crimes,” a cousin of the victims said. The supermarket thugs’ months-long harvesting of Rolexes, jewelry, and cash targeted Asians, but the suspects have not been charged with hate crimes.
The 2020 Floyd race riots in Los Angeles featured battering-ram store heists; those military-style attacks have continued. In March 2022, five or six sledgehammer-wielding thieves smashed the windows and display cases of a Beverly Hills jeweler at 1:45 PM; bystanders watched in astonishment as the vandals escaped with up to $5 million in gems and watches. In August 2022, burglars drove into a Neiman Marcus at 4:45 AM in Beverly Hills, netting jewelry and handbags.
Other burglaries are more laid-back. A vandal strolls down a store aisle while openly shoving merchandise into a bag. People “don’t have things and they want things,” a delinquent in a youth home explained to the Los Angeles Times in December 2021. The conclusion was obvious: people are entitled to steal things. The 19-year-old was himself awaiting adjudication for a Home Depot theft of sledgehammers and crowbars, likely intended for a smash-and-grab in Beverly Hills.
The perpetrators in this wave of predation are overwhelmingly gang members and overwhelmingly black. (At street takeovers, by contrast, it is not unusual to see Mexican flags.) Since Floyd’s death in May 2020, the mainstream media and Democratic elites have relentlessly sent the message that blacks are the victims of endemic racism. President Joe Biden claims that the criminal-justice system treats blacks unfairly. That message inevitably spreads into such underclass enclaves as South Central Los Angeles, where it produces more alienation and contempt for the law.
California’s policymakers had targeted alleged criminal-justice racism long before the George Floyd race riots. In 2011, the legislature banned state prison sentences for most property and drug felonies, since those sentences had a disparate impact on blacks. That law—Public Safety Realignment, or AB 109—sent “realigned” convicts to county jails, where overcrowding soon spurred the release of thousands of repeat felons back onto the streets. (See “California’s Prison-Litigation Nightmare,” Autumn 2013.)
Proposition 47, passed in 2014 with the help of George Soros money, downgraded felony theft to a misdemeanor if the thief sated himself with $950 worth of stolen goods. (See “The Decriminalization Delusion,” Autumn 2015.) The Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act of 2016 (Proposition 57) eased standards for early release from prison. District attorneys warned that the measure would benefit habitual felons with violent records. Sure enough, the state prison authority has started using Prop. 57 to cut sentences further for incarcerated gun felons. A 2018 law prohibited violent teenagers, aged 14 and 15, from being tried as adults, no matter how heinous their crimes.
These earlier decarceration and decriminalization measures reduced California’s prison population by 25 percent from its peak in 2007 through the end of 2019, the last year before the Floyd earthquake. Crime responded accordingly. Auto thefts, car break-ins, shoplifting, organized retail theft, and other forms of larceny jumped statewide after the 2011 “realignment” of convicts and after Prop. 47’s passage, before leveling off. Many victims stopped reporting the newly downgraded misdemeanors, knowing that prosecutors and the police would pay scant attention to the reclassified crimes.
Violent crime increased in the aftermath of Prop. 47. Overall, homicides have risen over 31 percent in the first ten years of criminal justice reform (from 2011 to 2021), while aggravated assaults (which include drive-by shootings) have risen over 34 percent. Following the 2020 riots, progressive policymakers further depopulated jails and prisons, using the emergency powers that they had seized in response to Covid-19. The state prison system released about 10,000 prisoners; local officials turned loose thousands of inmates from jails. From January 2020 to December 2021, the state’s incarcerated population fell by another 34,000 inmates, bringing it down 38 percent from its earlier peak.
The Floyd convulsion further constricted policing. In July 2020, LAPD Chief Michel Moore banned his officers from accessing a statewide gang database. The stated reason: allegations that up to a dozen LAPD officers had entered non-gang-affiliated individuals into the system. Not to be outdone, California’s then–attorney general Xavier Becerra prohibited police across the state from accessing any record that an LAPD officer had entered into the database. Racial-justice crusaders had sought to dismantle the database for years, on the usual disparate-impact grounds. The timing of the bans, a little over a month after the worst of the riots, was not entirely coincidental.
Then the factual basis for the database proscriptions fell apart. In February 2022, a Los Angeles judge dismissed the city’s case against three of the six officers charged with improper data entry, citing insufficient evidence; the L.A. district attorney dropped two of the remaining three cases. Even had the charges against the officers been proved, they affected a minuscule number of data entries: the officers who were exonerated by the judge were accused of a single incorrect entry each, in a database at the time consisting of nearly 80,000 entries. The bans on the use of the database remain in effect, however, impeding the ability of detectives to locate gang associates of shooting and homicide suspects.
Persisting in his crusade against disparate impact, LAPD Chief Moore forbade his officers in March 2022 from initiating many low-level traffic stops, unless they suspected that a serious crime was afoot and documented that suspicion on their body cameras before making the stop. In January 2023, in another concession to antipolice activists, Moore banned the thin-blue-line flag, long understood as a memorial to fallen officers, from precinct houses, police cars, and police uniforms. According to Moore, the symbol had been hijacked by “undemocratic, racist, and bigoted . . . extremist groups.”
Given the sweeping response to alleged bias in California law enforcement, the empirical case for that bias should be strong. In fact, it is at best circumstantial, consisting of the disproportionate number of blacks among arrestees, probationers, and prisoners. In 2019, the latest year for which official state data are available, blacks made up over 28 percent of the state prison population, though they were 5 percent of the state’s residents, according to the 2020 Census. Whites were less than 21 percent of the state prison population, though they were 35 percent of California residents. The imprisonment rate for black men in 2017 was 4,236 prisoners per 100,000 black residents, ten times the imprisonment rate for white men.
Racism is not the explanation for these correctional disparities; differences in criminal offending are, however taboo it may be to say. In 2021, blacks constituted 51 percent of all robbery suspects in Los Angeles whose race was known. Blacks are 8 percent of L.A.’s population. Whites, 29 percent of L.A.’s population, made up 5 percent of 2021 robbery suspects whose race was known. Blacks in L.A. are 37 times as likely to commit a robbery as whites. Blacks were 34 percent, and whites 4 percent, of homicide suspects whose race was known in 2021, making blacks 31 times as likely to commit homicide in L.A. as whites. Those suspect identifications come from the victims of, and witnesses to, violent crime, who are disproportionately minorities themselves.
Statewide, twice as many black male offenders as white male offenders between the ages of 10 and 19 were arrested for felonies in 2021, despite the roughly one-to-seven difference in state population between blacks and whites. Nearly twice as many blacks as whites were arrested for homicide across California in 2021; the number of blacks between the ages of 20 and 29 arrested for homicide was nearly three times higher than the number of white homicide arrestees in that age bracket.
Racial-justice crusaders argue that these disparities reflect bias on the part of the police, not actual differences in crime commission. But the bodies don’t lie. Homicide statistics, both for victims and offenders, are the gold standard of criminal-justice data, and they confirm the reality of crime differences. Blacks made up 36 percent of total homicide victims in Los Angeles in 2021, making them nearly 19 times as likely to be feloniously killed as whites. If the criminal-justice system were racist, it would ignore black homicide victims in favor of white victims. Instead, police departments assiduously try to solve the killing of blacks, despite a no-snitch ethic that stigmatizes witness cooperation. Tracking down blacks’ assailants almost inevitably means tracking down black assailants. The police have no choice in whom the evidence leads to.
Responding to robberies and other violent crime is also nondiscretionary. The police must answer 911 calls; they are not ignoring white-perpetrated robberies to focus on black-perpetrated robberies.
If advocates of the criminal-justice-is-racist theory really believed their narrative, they would seek to cap arrests of blacks in Los Angeles at 8 percent of all arrests, to match the population benchmark that they invariably use to assess alleged police bias. Arrests of blacks statewide would be capped at 5 percent. The effect of such population-based arrest caps on crime would usefully test the bias theory.
Though California’s racial-justice crusaders have not explicitly adopted an arrest cap, the state’s restrictions on incarceration and its downgrading of felonies are the next best thing. But the pressure to eliminate the disparate impact of color-blind, constitutional law enforcement remains unrelenting.
No one exemplifies the post-Floyd antiracist reformer more dramatically than George Gascón. In 2011, when he was mayor of San Francisco, Gavin Newsom appointed Gascón as the city’s district attorney; before then, Gascón had led the police agencies of San Francisco and Mesa, Arizona. In November 2020, Gascón was elected district attorney in Los Angeles, running on an antiracism platform and ousting L.A.’s comparatively conservative black district attorney.
Within hours of taking office, Gascón instituted 90 pages of policy changes that had been recommended by defense attorneys and anti-incarceration advocates. He banned the use of all sentencing enhancements, which seek a higher sentence for a particular crime than might otherwise be sought. Grounds for enhancement include criminal history and the defendant’s conduct during the latest crime in question, such as the use of a gun or the infliction of great bodily harm.
This prohibition on enhancements resulted in about 8,000 fewer sentence years imposed during Gascón’s first three months in office, compared with the same period in the previous year, reported the New York Times. Gascón banned his staff from bringing cases against criminals who had resisted arrest, trespassed, engaged in disorderly conduct, loitered for the purpose of prostitution, driven with no license, or driven with a suspended one. He banned prosecutors from attending parole hearings. He eliminated bail for all “nonserious” offenses.
Gascón started reviewing the sentences of some 20,000 state prisoners for possible early release. In March 2021, a convicted murderer in Sacramento’s Folsom State Prison recorded a video of himself and another inmate toasting Gascón for his retroactive sentence shortenings. While convicted felons would get their sentences reopened for review, police officers who had shot a suspect but who had been cleared by Gascón’s predecessor would see their cases reexamined for possible prosecution.
On taking office, Gascón asked the public to close its eyes and imagine the end point of his decarceration push: safe neighborhoods “with parks, playgrounds, and . . . kids playing.” What Angelenos see at present if they open their eyes is more like a Third World country, as Governor Newsom himself said in January 2022. Newsom was describing a railyard in the heart of Los Angeles, where thieves had strewn the contents of plundered freight containers over the tracks. Such freight assaults had jumped 160 percent since December 2020, according to Union Pacific officials. Thieves were breaking in to an average of 90 containers a day in L.A. In October 2021, thefts were up 356 percent, compared with October 2020. Rail employees had been robbed and assaulted as well.
Union Pacific officials attribute this crime spree to Gascón’s prosecution policies. “Charges are reduced to a misdemeanor or petty offense, and the criminal is released after paying a nominal fine,” the company’s public affairs director complained late in 2021.
Criminals across the spectrum of lawlessness are taking advantage of such reforms. An LAPD initiative embodies the advocacy narrative that criminals and vagrants need services and housing, not punishment. Under the Alternatives to Incarceration Diversion Program, suspects arrested in South Central Los Angeles can have their latest arrest wiped clean and avoid prosecution if they accept outreach and shelter. They must have no “serious” crimes on their record and be deemed addicted, homeless, or mentally ill.
The program has been a flop. Since it began in the summer of 2022, nearly three-quarters of those offered diversion in lieu of prosecution have turned the offer down. They know that they will be released anyway, given the elimination of cash bail, and that they face almost no risk of prosecution under the Gascón regime. Of the remainder who do agree to diversion, about half drop out.
Advocates blame the program for being insufficiently accommodating. A senior attorney with the Western Center of Law and Poverty told the Los Angeles Times that criminals may worry that services won’t be offered in a culturally sensitive way. Gary Blasi, an emeritus professor of law at the University of California–Los Angeles and the dean of L.A.’s vagrancy apologists, said that such diversion efforts must be evaluated from the “point of view of the person involved”: Is the alternative offered better than the status quo? People’s choices must be judged by standing in their shoes, Blasi explained. The homeless don’t want to be placed in settings where they have little or no privacy or autonomy, Blasi said—a fastidiousness suggesting that the descriptor “homeless” is inaccurate. But under the Great Abdication, it is the “homeless” who decide whether they should be allowed to continue defecating in front of businesses, not the business owners themselves.
The year 2022 seemed the best hope for dislodging this crimino-centric worldview and putting the interests and needs of the law-abiding back at the center of policymakers’ concerns. The California crime explosion had become impossible to ignore. In 2020, the state experienced the largest homicide increase in its history since records were first kept. Drive-by shootings had risen 40 percent. From 2019 to 2021, homicides in California jumped over 41 percent; gun-related homicides rose 52 percent. In Los Angeles, homicides rose 13 percent in 2021 over the already elevated 2020 numbers. At the end of 2022, reported property crimes in Los Angeles were up nearly 16 percent, compared with 2020, and unreported property crimes are likely rising even faster. Total felonies in Los Angeles were up another 14 percent, compared with 2020’s Floyd-driven felony increase.
Nearly four-fifths of California voters surveyed in early 2022 agreed that crime had risen statewide over the previous year. A majority of those voters wanted to confer felony status back on many of the thefts that Prop. 47 had reduced to misdemeanors. A state legislator had introduced a bill to repeal Prop. 47 entirely.
A revolt broke out in Gascón’s office. In a December 2022 resignation letter, a deputy district attorney described his “stunned disbelief” upon reading Gascón’s inaugural policy changes. Contrary to Gascón’s assumptions, the veteran prosecutor wrote, “I know to a moral certainty that LA County prosecutors . . . honor and respect the rights of suspects.” The union representing L.A.’s deputy district attorneys sued to enjoin many of Gascon’s prosecution bans on the ground that they violated state law. Virtually the entire membership of the union supported Gascón’s recall in the second of two unsuccessful efforts. At least a dozen seasoned prosecutors have sued Gascón for retaliating against them after they objected to his reforms. (Earlier this month, a jury awarded one of those plaintiffs $1.5 million, in the first of those retaliation suits to reach a verdict.)
Crime victims were also pushing back. In November 2022, the widow of a slain police officer from El Monte (a small jurisdiction east of downtown Los Angeles) sued Gascón and the county probation department for $25 million. But for Gascón’s ban on sentencing enhancements, the lawsuit charges, the suspected cop-killer would not have been loose on June 14, 2022, when he allegedly murdered the El Monte officer and his partner.
Most promisingly for those hoping to stop the evisceration of law enforcement, a credible candidate for Los Angeles mayor was putting crime and vagrancy at the center of his campaign. Rick Caruso was arguably the city’s top developer, having crafted the region’s most esteemed outdoor malls. A stickler for detail and an unapologetic advocate for public order, Caruso hammered relentlessly on the need to hire more police officers and to get vagrants off the streets.
A majority of voters deemed him better able to fight crime and homelessness than his opponent, career politician Karen Bass. Bass, former chair of California’s Legislative Black Caucus, had intersectionality and the Democratic establishment on her side. Barack Obama, former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and George Gascón all endorsed her. After the Supreme Court’s decision in June 2022 overruling Roe v. Wade, Bass also had abortion fearmongering on her side. She managed to turn the election into a referendum on left-wing Democratic values, portraying Caruso as a threat to those values, despite the impregnable security of abortion rights in California and Caruso’s own support for those rights.
In what had once been an evenly divided race, Bass won the mayoralty by nearly 10 percentage points, crushing Caruso in black neighborhoods and splitting the vote in majority Hispanic neighborhoods. White and wealthier districts favored Caruso. After the election, Bass walked back the modestly pro-enforcement sentiments that she had expressed to counter Caruso’s attacks and returned to progressive talking points, such as favoring a public-health response to violence. On a black radio station, she insisted that the “neighborhoods that want to see a more visible [police] presence . . . don’t tend to be our neighborhoods”—“our neighborhoods” referring to South Central Los Angeles.
Elsewhere in Los Angeles and California, the 2022 midterm elections further dimmed the prospects for law and order. Incumbent attorney general Rob Bonta campaigned on more decriminalization and on gun control. In the lead-up to November, he focused on alleged racism in hospital computer programs rather than on the rise in drive-by shootings. Bonta trounced his law-and-order opponent, a former federal attorney who had campaigned on prosecuting violent criminals and fentanyl traffickers.
Certified public accountant Kenneth Mejia won the race for Los Angeles city controller by promising to monitor LAPD conduct at every protest and to scrutinize the LAPD’s “bloated” budget. Homeless encampments should be allowed outside public schools, he maintained. L.A. County’s law-and-order sheriff Alex Villanueva lost his reelection bid to a little-known retired police chief from Long Beach, who had sounded some reformist notes.
Several police abolitionists joined the Los Angeles City Council. Community activist Eunisses Hernandez, elected in June 2022, said during her campaign that she wanted to see the police out of her “community,” anticipating Bass’s assessment that “our” neighborhoods don’t want more police. Hernandez insisted that most county jail inmates are in confinement because of poverty, drugs, and poor mental health, ignoring the failure of the LAPD’s Alternatives to Incarceration Diversion Program to entice those allegedly desperate victims into housing.
Labor organizer Hugo Soto-Martinez told the Los Angeles chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America during the campaign that he favored “abolition of police and the prison industrial complex.” As a start to abolition, he would replace every departing officer in the LAPD with a social worker. Given the Floyd-inspired exodus from the department—currently at a rate of 600 retirements a year—Soto-Martinez’s plan would quickly turn the LAPD into another arm of the National Association of Social Workers. Soto-Martinez unseated councilman Mitch O’Farrell, who had contrasted his own position on public safety with Soto-Martinez’s; the comparison ended up favoring the abolitionist.
At the top of the Democratic ticket, Governor Newsom had easily survived a recall effort in the summer of 2021, as Californians’ ire against pandemic lockdowns faded. Newsom then used his ten-to-one funding advantage to trounce his Republican opponent in November 2022. Newsom had positioned himself as the country’s leading exponent of blue-state progressivism, contrasting his purportedly enlightened stance on abortion and LGBTQ education with red-state backwardness, allegedly personified by such Neanderthals as Texas governor Greg Abbott and Florida governor Ron DeSantis.
Newsom’s rare acknowledgments of California’s rising crime, made when a particularly egregious video of such crime went viral, were fleeting and inconclusive.
A few bright spots did appear.
San Francisco’s anti-incarceration district attorney, Chesa Boudin, was recalled in June 2022, as the city’s notoriously left-wing residents rebelled against the nonstop rise in street vagrancy and theft.
Down south, in equally progressive Venice Beach, civil rights attorney Erin Darling lost his city council race. The victor had tied Darling to the police-abolition movement and had promised to enforce the city’s anti-encampment ordinance, unlike Darling, who opposed the ordinance.
A candidate backed by the police union won a council seat in L.A.’s Harbor District; a more moderate Democrat won the city attorney’s race against an antipolice, pro-encampment candidate.
Follow-home robberies in Los Angeles dropped over 60 percent in the final quarter of 2022, compared with a year earlier, thanks to the creation of a specialized LAPD task force (proving yet again that enforcement works). In the course of its investigations, the task force arrested five people for murder and nine for attempted murder.
But these localized victories are not enough to turn the state around. In her early days in office, Karen Bass focused on wielding emergency powers to build more taxpayer-subsidized vagrant housing. Homelessness, Bass said in a January 2023 interview, is simply the “most extreme manifestation” of “profound income inequality.” No wonder Bass was eager to dole out the proceeds of a recently passed “mansion tax” on Los Angeles real-estate sales: she could claim to be tackling homelessness and “profound income inequality” at the same time. (She will affect neither.)
As the new year began, Bass, the city council, and the L.A. County Board of Supervisors showed no inclination to make enforcement the primary strategy for restoring law and order, even as the chaos continued. A spectator was fatally run over during a street takeover on Christmas Day. Two weeks later, one person was killed and two others wounded in a shooting on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Traffic fatalities in Los Angeles rose 29 percent in 2022 over 2020 and 5 percent over 2021. South Central Los Angeles was the most lethal area to drive or to walk in, following a long-standing pattern linking high-crime and high-crash neighborhoods. The LAPD’s withdrawal from many low-level traffic offenses likely increased both crashes and crime.
Though the number of homicides in Los Angeles in 2022 was slightly below 2021 numbers, 2022’s homicides were still nearly 8 percent above the George Floyd annus horribilis of 2020. Robberies were up 7 percent citywide in 2022 and property crime was up 10 percent, compared with 2021.
George Gascón, meantime, sent out a fund-raising pitch on Martin Luther King Day, trumpeting his focus on “addressing the root causes of crime,” rather than on prosecution and incarceration. Never mind that a district attorney has neither a mandate nor a capacity to address such “root causes,” which Gascón defined as a lack of housing and inadequate social programs.
Lessening the consequences of crime on criminals has not improved California’s safety and habitability. Law-abiding residents are migrating to states that still take seriously government’s responsibility for public order, with a net exodus of 700,000 Californians from 2020 to 2022. Only the continued influx of illegal and legal aliens has prevented California’s population from shrinking more than it already has.
The avoidable degradation of the nation’s most beautiful state is heartbreaking. It remains to be seen how catastrophic that degradation must become before officials—and the voters who choose them—reject the Great Abdication and the ideology of antiracism that underpins it.
Top Photo: In the post–George Floyd era, mass looting has become commonplace in California. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)