Last year, the Los Angeles Police Department arrested 44% fewer people than it did a decade ago, even as the number of reported crimes is about the same as it was in 2010.
In 2010, there were 161,998 arrests in the City of Los Angeles and 208,842 reported crimes; in 2019 there were 90,143 arrests and 213,531 reported crimes.
The drop in arrests signals a shift in the way officers are policing residents, moving away from handcuffs to alternative means. It also raises the question about whether more arrests actually lead to safer streets.
One of the major drivers for the drop in arrests appears to be Prop 47, the California ballot measure passed in 2014 that downgraded certain nonviolent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. Many in law enforcement, such as the California Police Chiefs Association, blame Prop 47 for increasing crime. Los Angeles, along with many other cities in the state, saw an increase in crime in the first years after Prop 47 went into effect. Its lasting impact on public safety, however, is much less clear-cut.
LAPD Chief Michel Moore said the decline in arrests also reflects a new approach to policing that questions whether tougher enforcement is the best strategy for reducing crime.
“We don’t look to the number of arrests to our success; what we look to is the absence of crime,” said Moore.
He pointed to the department’s effort to reduce the number of juvenile arrests — down 85% in the past 10 years — as an example of how new approaches can bring broader changes. Arresting juveniles often brought youth into a criminal justice system from which it was difficult to escape. Instead, the LAPD doubled the number of youth in pre-arrest juvenile diversion programs and offers coaching for parents and families to overcome challenges the young people were facing.
Moore said arrests are “a barometer we watch because there needs to be justice for victims who have suffered at the hands of others.” But, he added, “We are no longer the hammer; we look at the entire toolkit of the resources available.”
Even before the passage of Prop 47, arrests had been on a steady decline in LA, falling in eight of the last nine years. Meanwhile, the number of reported crimes began to creep up in 2014, hitting 230,246 in 2017 but dropping for the past two years. In 2019, there were 213,531 reported crimes in the city.
This past year, arrests were down 12.8% compared with 2018, the sharpest drop in a decade. Drunk driving, domestic violence and possession of a controlled substance were the top reasons for arrests last year.
Steve Graves is a professor of geography at California State University, Northridge and teaches a course on the geography of crime. He noted that the LAPD’s data-collection methods have evolved over the years in ways which might influence how it tracks arrests. He said that changes in leadership and political pressure may have impacted the police’s approach to arresting suspects.
He also said that changes such as California’s legalization of marijuana for recreational use in 2018 might have led to a reduction in arrests.
Lenore Anderson, president of Californians for Safety and Justice, an advocacy organization that co-authored the proposition, said the organization partnered with labor and law enforcement to rethink the state’s approach to public safety and criminal justice. The state started implementing measures to reduce its prison population after a 2011 Supreme Court ruling that overcrowded California prisons were not meeting “minimum constitutional requirements.”
Anderson said high rates of incarceration — with 13 out of California’s 35 prisons operating far above capacity in 2018 — have had real consequences in communities, many of which lack the drug and mental health treatment centers and reintegration opportunities that keep people out of prison in the first place or from becoming prisoners again.
In 2017, $103 million was reallocated from the prison budget to mental health treatment programs, reentry programs, diversion programs and trauma recovery services for victims, as required by the ballot initiative.
Though opponents of Prop 47 claim it increases threats to public safety, a study released in March by researchers at UC Irvine suggested that easing penalties on certain low-level offenses didn’t raise the rates at which they were committed.
Nick Stewart-Oaten, an attorney with the Los Angeles Public Defender’s office, said the theory of Prop 47 being bad for public safety is tied to an old-fashioned type of policing that punished minor drug and theft offenses with long prison sentences.
“Police officers still get to choose whether to arrest defendants who commit Prop 47 offenses,” said Stewart-Oaten. “If police officers genuinely believe that a Prop 47 defendant is dangerous, they are still free to arrest him or her. The fact that police officers choose not to arrest folks for minor drug and theft offenses strongly suggests that police officers agree (even if non-publicly) that these types of defendants are not particularly dangerous.”
Stewart-Oaten said he has represented clients who should never have been arrested to begin with, especially in cases involving trespassing.
He shared one example of a pregnant woman who was arrested for trying to rob a pizza delivery man of a pizza she already had paid for. The case ended up in court and was later dismissed.
“It’s funny because it’s absurd, but it’s also a tragedy because this girl was in jail for a few days,” said Stewart-Oaten. “When the work was done on the case, she hadn’t done a thing wrong.”
How we did it: We examined LAPD publicly available data on arrest data for 2019 compared to the same time period last year, as well as dating back to Jan. 1, 2010, when the data became publicly available. For neighborhood boundaries, we rely on the borders defined by the Los Angeles Times. Learn more about our data here.
LAPD data only reflect crimes that are reported to the department, not how many crimes actually occurred. In making our calculations, we rely on the data the LAPD makes publicly available. On occasion, LAPD may update past reported crimes with new information, or recategorize past reports. Those revised reports do not always automatically become part of the public database.
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