Brutal, brazen crimes shake L.A., leaving city at a crossroads

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Private security officers guard the Beverly Hills home where Jacqueline Avant, the wife of music producer Clarence Avant, was shot and killed Wednesday. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Crews of burglars publicly smashing their way into Los Angeles' most exclusive stores. Robbers following their victims, including a star of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” and a BET host, to their residences. And this week, the fatal shooting of 81-year-old Jacqueline Avant, an admired philanthropist and wife of music legend Clarence Avant, in her Beverly Hills home.

After two years of rising violent crime in Los Angeles, these incidents have sparked a national conversation and led to local concern about both the crimes themselves and where the outrage over the violence will lead.

“The fact that this has happened, her being shot and killed in her own home, after giving, sharing, and caring for 81 years has shaken the laws of the Universe,” declared Oprah Winfrey, expressing her grief over Avant's killing to her 43 million Twitter followers. “The world is upside down.”

While overall city crime rates remain far below records set during the notorious gang wars of the 1990s, violent crime has jumped sharply in L.A., as it has in other cities. Much of the violence has occurred in poor communities and among vulnerable populations, such as the homeless, and receives little attention.

However, since the start of the pandemic and more rapidly in recent months, crime has crept up in wealthier enclaves and thrust its way to the center of public discourse in L.A. — against a backdrop of COVID-19 angst, evolving political perceptions of what role police and prosecutors should play in society and, now, a holiday season upon which brick-and-mortar retailers are relying to stay afloat.

Some wonder if this could be a turning point for California, which for decades has been at the center of the movement for criminal justice reform, rolling back tough sentencing laws and reducing prison populations.

Polls in 2020 showed that California voters largely support many of these measures, and both San Francisco and Los Angeles have elected district attorneys with strong reform agendas. However, those concerned about crime and those who believe liberal policies have contributed to its rise have grown more vocal.

It is a discourse defined by glaring differences of opinion and, at times, a yawning disconnect between the perception of local crime and the reality on the ground.

Dominick DeLuca, owner of the Brooklyn Projects skateboard shop on Melrose Avenue, a commercial corridor that has seen burglaries and robberies spike sharply in recent months, said things have gotten so bad that he carries a gun to work — and desperately wants ramped-up enforcement.

“I have never seen anything like it,” he said. “In the last two years, I have been broken into three times.”

At a Thursday press conference, Mayor Eric Garcetti and Los Angeles Police Department Chief Michel Moore said more offenders should be locked up and questioned pandemic-related policies that have allowed many nonviolent arrestees to be released without bail.

Moore said arrests had been made in several high-profile “smash-and-grab” burglaries but lamented that the suspects had all been released pending trial. Garcetti said warehousing criminals in jails without rehabilitating them is not a solution, but neither is ceding the streets to repeat offenders.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón, whose progressive policies around prosecution and sentencing many blame for the uptick in crime, was notably absent at the press conference but said through his office that he is working closely with law enforcement partners to hold perpetrators accountable for such brazen crimes.

The heightened rhetoric marks a departure from language shared by many of the same officials just last year, after George Floyd's murder by a Minneapolis police officer. This has set off alarms among activists who led protests, want to see progressive justice measures enacted and hear echoes of past eras when, they believe, the overhyping of crime led to overpolicing and excessive incarceration.

“They're trying to move us backward,” said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles. “We don't want to move backward; we want to move forward.”

Abdullah called Avant's killing “horrific and appalling” and said Black Lives Matter mourns with her family. But she said officials must not be allowed to use Avant's death or recent property crime to push for more policing, cash bail or other tough-on-crime measures that she said have been proved not to work.

“We need to think about what kind of economic desperation actually creates property crime and how do we get people out of that state,” Abdullah said. “How do we create livable wage jobs? How do we create affordable housing?”

Abdullah also warned against accepting claims about crime that may not have a basis in reality — which, as it happens, is something police have warned against in recent days, as concern over crime trends has escalated.

For example, while the “follow-home” and “smash-and-grab” trends in L.A., including upticks in robberies in corridors like Melrose Avenue, have caused concern, they are not indicative of a citywide surge in property crime.

According to LAPD data through Nov. 27, property crime this year is up 2.6% over the same period last year but is down 6.6% from 2019. Robbery is up 3.9% over last year but down 13.6% from 2019. Burglaries are down 8.4% from last year and down 7.7% from 2019. Car thefts are a notable outlier, up nearly 53% from 2019.

More concerning is violent crime. Homicides are up 46.7% compared with 2019, while shooting victims are up 51.4%, according to police data. As of the end of November, there had been 359 homicides in L.A. in 2021, compared with 355 in all of 2020. There have not been more homicides in one year since 2008, which ended with 384.

In Beverly Hills, police stress that crime is rare — and killings like Avant's even more so. Police Chief Mark Stainbrook said that despite recent incidents, Beverly Hills remains one of the safest cities in the nation.

Crime across Beverly Hills this year was down 2% as of the end of October. Violent crime in the past two years is up 23% compared with the two years prior, but the total number of such crimes remains tiny: There were just five robberies in the city in October, and homicides are rare.

It's not clear what reforms the concerns about crime in the Los Angeles area will lead to — if any.

A crime spike in the 1990s led California to adopt policies that toughened sentences and increased incarceration. The reform movement was an acknowledgment that those policies went too far and caused their own injustices. A poll of L.A. voters released this week showed that public safety is perceived as less of a pressing problem than homelessness, housing affordability, traffic, climate change and air quality.

Jonathan Simon, a criminal justice professor at UC Berkeley's law school and author of “Governing through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear,” said it is unlikely that crime concerns will completely derail the progressive criminal justice reform movement that began with Floyd's killing.

However, such concern could slow those reforms, he said — showing once more “how potent the political value of crime is” and how quickly politicians and others can revert to a “crackdown” mentality.

“It's a powerful trope now for 40 years,” Simon said.

On Friday at Beverly Hills’ Roxbury Park, a handful of child-care providers sat together over lunch. One woman said she had moved her walking schedule earlier each day to feel more secure.

Norma Guzman, who has worked for two decades as a babysitter in various parts of L.A., said Beverly Hills does not compare to other areas in terms of the amount of crime.

“If I didn’t watch TV, I don’t think I would have noticed the area was more dangerous,” she said. “I don’t think it is.”

But Janette Waight, a nurse who has worked in Beverly Hills for seven years and was strolling through Roxbury Park with her boss' terrier, felt differently.

“Over the last few years, this area has become more and more dangerous,” Waight said. “It’s not just crime; it’s homelessness, and it’s just a desire from people to look for quick cash rather than work.”

Ruben Urcis, 90, a 42-year resident of Beverly Hills who walks twice a day along the Beverly Gardens Park walkway, said he was not disturbed by the recent string of high-profile crimes, which he didn't consider anything new.

“People might just be noticing this, but it’s happened before,” he said, noting that his wife was robbed at gunpoint of a white-gold Rolex more than a decade ago outside their garage. Now she wears a “standard wristwatch of no value,” he added.

Urcis said the difference with crime now is that it's occurring in public places and being recorded on camera for all to see.

“The people in this community don’t feel safe,” he said, “but that’s been going on for a long time.”

Pete Nichols, co-founder of the community group Melrose Action, said Thursday's press conference offered few concrete solutions — one reason the Melrose retail community isn't waiting for City Hall or the LAPD to address crime for them. Instead, local merchants are trying to obtain cameras that read license plates to help police identify burglars who drive through the area.

Many local merchants and employees saw the August killing of 26-year-old Shoe Palace employee Jayren Bradford outside that store as a tipping point, Nichols said, and have been chipping in funds for the cameras.

“It is a really awful situation,” he said.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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