Police arrests are plummeting across California, fueling alarm and questions
In 2013, something changed on the streets of Los Angeles.
Police officers began making fewer arrests. The following year, the Los Angeles Police Department’s arrest numbers dipped even lower and continued to fall, dropping by 25% from 2013 to 2015.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the San Diego Police Department also saw significant drops in arrests during that period.
The statewide numbers are just as striking: Police recorded the lowest number of arrests in nearly 50 years, according to the California attorney general’s office, with about 1.1 million arrests in 2015 compared with 1.5 million in 2006.
It is unclear why officers are making fewer arrests. Some in law enforcement cite diminished manpower and changes in deployment strategies. Others say officers have lost motivation in the face of increased scrutiny — from the public as well as their supervisors.
The picture is further complicated by Proposition 47, a November 2014 ballot measure that downgraded some drug and property felonies to misdemeanors. Many police officers say an arrest isn’t worth the time it takes to process when the suspect will spend at most a few months in jail.
In Los Angeles, the drop in arrests comes amid a persistent increase in crime, which began in 2014. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck noted that arrests for the most serious crimes have risen along with the numbers of those offenses, while the decrease comes largely from narcotics arrests.
The arrest data include both felonies and misdemeanors — crimes ranging from homicide to disorderly conduct. From 2010 to 2015, felony arrests made by Los Angeles police officers were down 29% and misdemeanor arrests were down 32%.
Two other measures of police productivity, citations and field interviews, have also declined significantly.
The LAPD could not provide final tallies for arrests in 2016. But based on numbers that include arrests by other agencies within city limits, the downward trend continued last year, Assistant Chief Michel Moore said.
A direct link between the crime pattern and the drop in arrests is difficult to draw, in part because the arrest data include minor offenses not counted in the tally the city uses to measure crime. Still, some city officials are concerned.
“Those are dramatic numbers that definitely demand scrutiny and explanation,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin, who sits on the Public Safety Committee and represents the Westside. “If crime was dramatically down, I wouldn’t have a problem with arrests going down. But if crime is going up, I want to see arrests going up.”
Beck said although arrests are an important component of policing, they are not the sole barometer of officer productivity. As an example, he pointed to community policing programs that he credits with reducing homicides in housing developments hit hard by violent crime.
Modern policing includes an array of strategies, such as swarming hot spots to prevent crimes from occurring, that may increase public safety without generating many arrests, he said.
For the LAPD, Beck said, modern policing also includes a different philosophy than the one the department embraced decades ago, during the Operation Hammer days when officers would stop, search and arrest thousands of people during weekend raids.
“The only thing we cared about was how many arrests we made. I don't want them to care about that,” Beck said of his officers. “I want them to care about how safe their community is and how healthy it is.”
Nationwide criticism of police stoked by the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and other highly publicized law enforcement killings has had an effect on officers’ mindsets — but not to the detriment of crime fighting, Beck said.
“I’d be denying human nature if I didn’t say police are very cautious about what they do now because of the scrutiny,” Beck said. “But do I see it? I don’t really see things that make me think that the workforce as a body is retreating. I don’t see that at all.”
The decline in arrests had already begun before Brown, an unarmed black man, was killed by a white Ferguson police officer in August 2014, setting off nationwide demonstrations. After a grand jury declined to indict the Ferguson officer, protesters in Los Angeles and other cities marched through the streets.
In a nationwide survey conducted in 2016 by the Pew Research Center, 72% of the law enforcement officers questioned said their colleagues were less likely to stop and question suspicious people “as a result of high-profile incidents involving blacks and the police.”
Police officers and sheriff’s deputies interviewed by The Times echoed that view.
“Everyone is against whatever law enforcement is doing, so that makes an officer kind of hesitant to initiate contact,” said one LAPD officer, who has worked in South L.A. for more than a decade and requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. “A lot of guys will shy away from it because we’ve got the dash cams, we’ve got the body cams.… We don’t want it to come back on us.”
The heightened atmosphere surrounding ordinary police encounters was apparent one day in Compton last summer, when L.A. County Sheriff’s Deputy Anthony Federico made a routine stop of a vehicle without license plates.
Federico gave polite directions, calmly telling the driver why he had been pulled over, and the driver complied.
But as Federico moved back toward his cruiser, someone stepped out of a house and trained a cellphone on him. About 25 feet away, an Uber driver pulled over and also began filming.
Federico said he refuses to let the added scrutiny affect his work.
“It doesn’t bother me, because I know I’m not doing anything wrong,” he said.
But others say it is inevitable that some officers will pull back, taking care of necessary work while not engaging in the “proactive policing” that could lead to more arrests — and to more encounters that turn violent.
“Not to make fun of it, but a lot of guys are like, ‘Look, I’m just going to act like a fireman.’ I’m going to handle my calls for service and the things that I have to do,” said George Hofstetter, a motorcycle deputy in Pico Rivera and former president of the union representing L.A. County sheriff’s deputies. “But going out there and making traffic stops and contacting persons who may be up to something nefarious? ‘I’m not going to do that anymore.’”
LAPD officers are troubled by contentious demonstrations at Police Commission meetings and by public criticism of their colleagues for using deadly force, said Robert Harris, a police officer on the LAPD union’s board of directors.
“Suddenly, you feel like you can’t do any police work, because every opportunity that you have might turn into the next big media case,” Harris said. “Of course, you’re going to take stock a little bit more, I think, before you put yourself out there like that.”
The recent decline in police activity is not limited to arrests: The number of field interview cards, or FI cards, written by officers has plummeted at both the LAPD and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.
The cards document some encounters between police and civilians that stop short of an arrest or citation. They are a tool sometimes used to keep track of gang members and other suspected criminals.
The number of LAPD field interview cards fell nearly every month in the second half of 2014, and the department recorded its lowest number of cards in nearly five years in November of 2014.
Field interviews conducted by Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies have also been in steep decline, falling by 67% from 2012 to 2016. Sheriff Jim McDonnell said the drop-off is probably connected to the elimination of many gang enforcement teams due to budget cuts. But the trend is worrisome, he said, because the cards are useful in documenting the movements of potential suspects.
It would be “naive” to think the national debate over policing hasn’t affected the Sheriff’s Department, McDonnell said. Nevertheless, he said, his deputies are not shying away from potentially dangerous situations.
The number of citations, which includes traffic violations and other types of tickets, issued by LAPD officers also fell sharply, from almost 600,000 in 2010 to about 269,500 five years later. The biggest drop came in 2015, when police issued roughly 154,000 fewer citations than the year before.
Beck said that in 2014, the department began issuing written warnings as a substitute where appropriate.
“The goal is not to write citations,” Beck said. “The goal is to manage traffic flow, the goal is to create safe streets.”
The LAPD could not provide the number of field inquiries conducted or citations issued by its officers in 2016.
McDonnell and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti are among local officials who have blamed Proposition 47, which took effect on Nov. 5, 2014, for a rise in crime, especially property offenses, in both the city of L.A. and the Sheriff’s Department’s territory. Critics of the measure say that with some drug and property felonies downgraded to misdemeanors, offenders spend less time in jail and have the opportunity to commit more crimes.
In 2016, violent crime in Los Angeles increased for the third straight year and was up 38% over the previous two years. Property crime jumped for the second consecutive year, with a 4% rise that was driven by double-digit increases in car-related thefts.
Still, the city remains far safer than a decade ago, when there were 40% more robberies than in 2016 and 480 homicides compared with 294 last year.
Proponents of Proposition 47, which was designed to funnel funds that would have been used to jail low-level offenders into creating treatment programs for those same people, say there is no evidence linking the legislation to crime increases. They say that criminal justice officials, including prosecutors and judges, need to change the way they do business.
But the measure has almost certainly contributed to the decline in felony arrests, since some drug and property crimes are no longer felonies. Moreover, some police officers and sheriff’s deputies are less inclined to make a misdemeanor arrest for a Proposition 47 crime, saying it is not worth the hours it takes to book a person who could wind up back on the street soon after being placed in handcuffs.
In 2015, the first full year after the legislation took effect, Los Angeles police made 37% fewer narcotics arrests than they did the year before. Narcotics arrests made by L.A. sheriff’s deputies fell by 28% in the same time frame.
Beck said that with possession of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and other drugs reduced to misdemeanors, it is “absolutely predictable” that felony arrests would drop off.
Harris, the LAPD union director, said that Proposition 47, combined with the department’s “inadequate” staffing levels, has altered the calculus for officers when deciding whether to engage with someone.
“Are you going to go and make an arrest that you know is only going to be a misdemeanor? You know your impact is not going to be very great,” Harris said. “That guy is going to be right back out again.”
But declining arrest totals are not necessarily a bad thing, some officials and activists said.
If officers think twice about approaching people, some situations where police use force might be avoided, said Melina Abdullah, a leader of the local Black Lives Matter movement and chair of the Pan-African studies department at Cal State L.A.
“If police are more cautious about making arrests that might be controversial, making arrests that might elicit protests, then that is a victory,” Abdullah said. “We want them to begin to check themselves.”
Los Angeles City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who represents neighborhoods in South L.A., said he was not particularly alarmed by the decline, noting that the numbers do not always mirror annual crime patterns.
Some of the LAPD’s most crucial work — building relationships with residents — may not be reflected by statistics, Harris-Dawson said. In some parts of his district, he said, “a cop stopping and talking to a group of kids four or five times between the hours of 3 and 8 is probably more valuable than 10 citations.”
Herb Wesson, president of the Los Angeles City Council, said the numbers might be an indication that officers are trying different approaches. They could also be a sign that the city needs more police officers working at certain times, he said.
“Why is this occurring? That, for me, is the critical question,” he said. “You have all of these statistics, and now we need to break them down.”
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