The Los Angeles Times reported this week that crime is on the rise in the City of Angels after a 12-year decline. “Crime surged across Los Angeles in the first six months of this year,” the story begins, “despite a campaign by the Los Angeles Police Department to place more officers on the streets and target certain types of offenses.” The only mystery about L.A.’s recent crime spike is why anyone finds it a mystery.
Civic leaders have been at pains to explain the reversal. Mayor Eric Garcetti and Police Chief Charlie Beck have blamed a rise in gang violence and homelessness, along with voter approval in November of Proposition 47, which made many “nonviolent” felonies into misdemeanors. All of these have contributed to the increase, but conspicuously missing from their list is a factor both Mayor Garcetti and Chief Beck are surely aware of but are unlikely to address, at least publicly: officer morale in the LAPD is abysmal.
The death of Michael Brown last year in Ferguson, Missouri, touched off a national wave of anti-police hysteria. This despite the fact that every investigative body that examined the case—including the U.S. Justice Department under Eric Holder—concluded that Darren Wilson, the police officer who tried to detain Brown and a companion as they walked down a Ferguson street, acted in self-defense and well within the law when he shot and killed Brown. Wilson was nonetheless hounded from his job and forced into hiding as the “Hands up, don’t shoot” myth was propagated in the media and exploited by the anti-police industry.
The message was not lost on LAPD officers, who came to realize that, like Wilson, they were just one controversial incident away from potential ruin. Two officers in Los Angeles are currently waiting to learn their fate after their involvement in a shooting that occurred just two days after Brown was killed. Though the incident was not as widely covered as the Brown shooting, the police killing of Ezell Ford, a 25-year-old black man, sparked protests in Los Angeles and brought calls for the involved officers to be fired and imprisoned. To his credit, Chief Beck defied the mob and ruled that the shooting was justified, as forensic evidence proved that Ford had tried to disarm one of the officers as they wrestled on a South Los Angeles sidewalk.
But the laws governing the LAPD are such that the chief doesn’t have the last word on shootings. All he can do is make a recommendation to the five-member police commission—all mayoral appointees—and they come to their own conclusions. In a ruling that was stunning for its legal distortions and intellectual contortions, the commission ruled that one of the officers was justified in shooting Ford but the other was not. And now, almost a year after the incident, both officers are still awaiting a decision by the Los Angeles County district attorney on whether they will face criminal charges.
The rise in crime is easily explainable if you proceed from the assumption that police officers and criminals are rational actors who constantly evaluate the risk-reward ratio of any decisions they make. For the criminals of Los Angeles, a good deal of risk has been removed from their calculations, especially now that so many felony property- and drug-related crimes are misdemeanors and the state’s 2011 “realignment” law has achieved its intended goal of easing overcrowding in the state’s prisons. The result has been fewer criminals behind bars and more on the streets without much in the way of a deterrent under the law.
And not only do L.A.’s criminals face lesser penalties if they are arrested, they know that the city’s police officers are less inclined to arrest them in the first place. For the police officers’ part, they’ve seen only an increase in the risks they face. And in this I’m not referring to the risks to their mortal hides posed by some knife- or gun-wielding thug. Police officers, at least those who choose to work the streets, prepare themselves physically and mentally for these challenges. But while a police officer may keep himself physically fit and practice his marksmanship, there is no amount of training that can prepare him for the dangers that emanate from City Hall, the district attorney’s office, or the Justice Department if he should become involved in some controversial incident that has the mob calling for his head on a pike.
Until Mayor Garcetti and Chief Beck are prepared to defend their police officers from the mob, expect crime in Los Angeles to continue to rise.