Crime & Justice

Rising crime in Long Beach stoking anxieties among police, politicians

Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC

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Long Beach residents saw a double-digit boost in crimes such as auto theft and robbery in 2015, according to year-end figures recently released by the city's police department. 

Long Beach is among several southern California cities, including Los Angeles, struggling to interpret the cause of rising crime as 2015 figures become available. Violent crime rose 18.8 percent from 2014 to 2015, while property crime went up 15.4 percent, and murders in the city jumped from 23 to 36. 

No one's quite sure what's to blame for the rise, which comes in the context of historically low crime in the city and across the country. Law enforcement, however, are concerned recent criminal justice reform measures in California that lessened penalties for drug and low-level offenses may be to blame.

"If they get arrested, they get out of jail and are back on the streets before the officer has completed the report," said Long Beach Police Deputy Police Chief Rich Rocchi. 

But it's too early to tell why crime went up, according to Mike Males, researcher at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, which advocates for reducing reliance on incarceration. 

"We want to attribute [good effects to] policies we like and bad effects to policies we don't like," Males said. 

California voters have supported multiple initiatives aimed at reducing sentences for lower level crimes, notably Prop 47 which reclassified low-level property and drug crimes from a felony to a misdemeanor. Then there's AB109, which went into effect in 2011, diverting low-level offenders from prisons to jails, often resulting in less time spent behind bars. The measure also sent millions of dollars previously spent on prisons to local counties to administer.

Criminologists have not been able to link rises in violent crimes or most property crimes to reforms, but that hasn't stemmed the suspicion that the two are related. 

Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia said the question is not whether to roll back the changes, but what to do instead.

For reform efforts to work, local communities need more resources, he said. 

"Most people going in and out of our prison system are exactly the people that need the most help. They are the least educated, they are the ones that have the hardest time getting a job, maybe because of a former felony or some type of conviction," Garcia said. "They are the people we need to invest the most in."

Long Beach Councilwoman Suzie Price, is calling for more resources for drug rehabilitation services.

"The problem is when you pass a policy and don't put infrastructure and support you need to sustain that policy, there is a major gap in the system and all sorts of people are falling through," Price said.

Garcia and Price also want to add more in patrol officers in Long Beach.  That could mean going to taxpayers and asking for money to pay for them.