In the past year, the Los Angeles Police Department has come under intense scrutiny, as advocates for racial justice demanded it reform the way it interacts with Black, Hispanic and other communities of color.
But in one significant way, the LAPD has altered its approach to law enforcement: It is putting fewer people in handcuffs.
Though the roots of this change can be traced back a decade, the decline in arrests has accelerated recently. In the first six months of 2021, there were 29,794 arrests, a 37% drop from the same period in 2019. A decade ago, there were 79,118 arrests during the first six months of the year.
LAPD arrest totals in the Jan.-June period
And last year saw the lowest number of arrests in over 10 years, a result influenced in part by the pandemic.
Driving down arrests
There are many factors contributing to the drop, including changes in California’s penal code, such as Prop 47, the 2014 ballot measure which downgraded some non-violent offenses from felonies to misdemeanors. The department also made a commitment to reducing youth arrests. And, of course, the restrictions related to COVID-19 have played a role. Still, one important upshot is that thousands of fewer people are entering the criminal justice system than were just a few years ago.
Total arrests and total crime reports in the Jan.-June period
Calls for reforming LAPD go far deeper than its arrest numbers. Advocates for racial justice contend that the department vastly overpolices communities of color, a trend documented in its approach to traffic stops, for example, where officers have disproportionately pulled over Black drivers.
Though arrests have fallen, minority communities are still overrepresented, a trend which has increased recently. Hispanic and Latino people make up 48.5% of residents of the city of Los Angeles and account for 50.6% of arrests this year. Black people make up 8.9% of residents, but account for 27% of the arrests. White people are 28.5% of the population, but they make up only 15.9% of arrests. Asians make up 11.6% of residents, and just 2.2% of total arrests.
Percentage of arrests by race during Jan.-June, 2021 vs. 2020
LAPD Chief Michel Moore told Crosstown earlier this year that the downward trend in arrests is a result of the department’s recent approach to trying different ways to reduce crime beyond putting more people in handcuffs. He emphasized the importance of measuring success not by the number of arrests, but by the decrease in overall crime in the city.
Calls to defund
Nationwide protests in response to George Floyd’s murder last summer have spurred debate in Los Angeles about rewriting the role of the police department in the city. Critics called for a dramatic reduction in the agency’s budget, as well as new approaches to policing focused on de-escalating situations, such as interactions with mentally ill and unhoused people. Despite these efforts, the LAPD budget increased slightly this year. This past May, council members unanimously voted to increase LAPD’s funding by 3%, from $1.71 billion to $1.76 billion, starting on July 1.
“We must cut the astronomical amount of money that our governments spend on law enforcement and give that money to more helpful services like job training, counseling, and violence-prevention programs,” wrote Paige Fernandez, policy advisor for the American Civil Liberties Union, in an op-ed last year. “Defunding the police will actually make us safer.”
LAPD Lt. Raul Jovel said that the civil unrest last year from the Black Lives Matter protests definitely spurred a different attitude toward law enforcement, which may have influenced how police respond to incidents, including arrests.
“You had this big incident last year with ‘defund the police’ and a lot of negative rhetoric against the police,” Jovel said. “That has a personal impact on officers. At some point, that has to be considered in the level of activity.”
He also said that reduced staffing due to COVID-19 quarantine and an overall decrease in the number of service calls means fewer arrests.
“It ultimately impacts the level of service we provide at many different levels,” Jovel said. “There’s less people to do the entire volume of work the department has to do.”
How we did it: We examined Los Angeles Police Department publicly available data on arrest data from 2010 onward. We compared that against a database of crimes reported to the LAPD. 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.