Why income inequality should be part of the LA crime debate
I’m sure you’ve heard of it before.
The 17 gangs, mostly from South Los Angeles, who the Los Angeles Police Department says sent teams to target and rob wealthy Angelenos, following them to upscale hotels, restaurants and clubs, ripping off their watches and their handbags.
And on the suspects who, in some cases, according to the police, were released after being arrested and then committed other robberies.
I winced in concern when I heard it, immediately feeling awful for those attacked, then worried about the political implications for the Los Angeles mayoral race, which is already fueled and funded by fear of the voter crime.
The executive director of the Urban Peace Institute in Los Angeles, Fernando Rejón, also grimaced. But for somewhat deeper reasons.
Rejón spends his time working on violence prevention, helping outreach workers and police train in gang intervention tactics. As such, he’s acutely aware of how harsh election-year rhetoric can oversimplify solutions to crime and overshadow why people resort to them in the first place.
One of the things that’s been glossed over right now? The role of the direct economy.
“People are struggling,” Rejón told me. “Some people sell things around the corner. Some people will sell drugs. Some people are involved in different aspects of the underground economy in order to survive or earn money.
And then there are the people who prey on those in wealthy neighborhoods. “You know,” he acknowledged, “people become targets.”
It’s actually not that rare.
“There is a significant body of research that finds a positive relationship between income inequality and crime,” said Magnus Lofstrom, director of criminal justice policy and senior fellow at the nonpartisan California Institute of Public Policy.
Consider that even before the trauma and economic turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic, income inequality was more extreme in California than almost anywhere else in the United States, according to PPIC. The wealthiest families in the state had 12.3 times more income than the poorest families. And the gap has only grown in recent years.
So while California is home to about a quarter of the nation’s billionaires, we’re also home to at least a quarter of the nation’s homeless people, most of whom are disproportionately black and Latino.
A recent study by United Ways of California found that as many as 3.5 million households in the state – 33% – struggle to meet their basic needs. This includes some 1.1 million homes in Los Angeles County.
We now have so many homeless people in this city, deteriorating under bridges and on sidewalks, that we have no place to put them but in hotel rooms and tiny houses the size of of most bathrooms.
Meanwhile, thousands of increasingly desperate Angelenos are struggling to pay their rent and avoid eviction.
According to another recent study, this one by UC Berkeley and the Los Angeles Times, only 21% of voters said they were better off financially than a year ago. Another 42% said they were worse off and 34% said there had been no change.
“If everyone is in the same boat – even if it’s a tough boat – it’s different than if you’re barely hanging onto the edge of the boat and others seem to be splashing around in their super yachts,” said said Manuel Pastor, director of the USC Equity Research Institute.
The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer as we emerge from the pandemic.
Of course, not all economic desperation leads to crime. But are we really surprised that, according to the LAPD, a small subset of South Los Angeles’ poor have brazenly turned to armed robbery to even the score?
One can apparently drive under the 10 freeway, steal two UCLA students off their watches, and have enough for a down payment on a house. And then you can go to downtown Los Angeles and steal someone else’s watches, and have enough money to pay for that house.
We shouldn’t be surprised that, according to Capt. Jonathan Tippet, who leads the LAPD task force that released the ‘tracked-at-home’ robbery report, there were 165 such crimes in 2021. Or that there have already been nearly 60. this year.
Tippet told my Times colleague Kevin Rector that in his 34 years on the job, “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
I’m not at all surprised. Because in 34 years, we have never seen such income inequality either.
Of course, none of this is an excuse for criminal behavior. The wealthy should absolutely be able to walk around in their $300,000 diamond-encrusted watches without fear of being followed, tackled to a sidewalk, and whipped with guns by a gang of dudes in hoodies.
And there are certainly things that can be done now to make that happen for the wealthiest among us. That includes getting more guns off the streets and, yes, taking an honest, unbiased, and apolitical look at exactly why some criminal suspects are released and others are kept locked up.
But as mayoral candidates and voters continue to talk about getting tough on crime, it’s important to recognize that these are ultimately short-term fixes.
Long-term solutions must involve scaling up gang intervention programs that have been scaled back during the pandemic and investing in bigger and better community crime prevention strategies that can help residents as well as forces. of the order.
“It’s only when there’s violence in wealthy communities that it becomes a major problem,” Rejón lamented. “The gun homicide epidemic has plagued Los Angeles for generations. We’ve had it under control for about 10 years. It’s going up, but now is not the time to back down. We need to keep investing in expanding our understanding of public safety.
It also means finding new and meaningful ways to address growing income inequality, especially in South Los Angeles. We cannot continue to treat affordability as something that is somehow separate from crime.
“We don’t want short-sighted, short-term solutions for a long-term problem,” Rejón said.