Amid a pandemic, economic devastation and mass protests, overall crime rose in 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic fallout have touched nearly every aspect of life, and Long Beach police say their latest data shows crime is no exception.

Overall, crime in Long Beach rose in 2020, and—most notably—criminal homicides, aggravated assaults and property crime were up, according to year-end stats police released this week.

Crime in Long Beach had generally been on a downward path for several years prior to 2020, but that trajectory changed in the year of the pandemic.

In a statement, the LBPD said the coronavirus likely played a significant role in the shifts in crime, particularly in the late spring when more people were home during lockdowns.

Although total crime rose, the category of violent crime actually dropped by 1.4%. That number was driven by a significant decline in the number of robberies, which were down by 24.7%. Other types of violent crime including criminal homicides and aggravated assaults rose 5.9% and 18.6% respectively.

Of the 36 total criminal homicides in the city, LBPD attributes about 31% of them to “disputes that escalated into violence.” They also attribute the rise in aggravated assaults, which are assaults likely to cause serious injury, to a rise in gun violence, which was significant. The number of aggravated assaults rose from 1,131 in 2019 to 1,341 in 2020.

2020 showed a huge jump in shootings compared to years past, according to a Post analysis of shooting data. The year ended with 381 total shootings, while 2019 saw only 222 reported shootings. These include shootings that did not hit any victims, which account for a little over half of the incidents.

According to the data over the past five years, the number of shootings typically fluctuated slightly, but 2020 was by far the most violent, with shootings increasing each month toward the end of the year.

Last year, criminal homicides continued on their upswing after hitting a record low in 2017 in Long Beach. There were 36 killings in 2020 compared to 34 in 2019 and 30 in 2018. It’s worth noting that even with the turmoil of 2020, today’s numbers are still well below what was seen in the ’90s when Long Beach could see up to 100 homicides in a year.

In the yearly data reported by the LBPD, the categories are all defined by the FBI and the criminal homicide statistic doesn’t include all killings, such as justified homicides in self defense or traffic deaths.

Meanwhile, overall property crime jumped 12.1% in 2020 compared to 2019, when it had been trending down for years. Residential burglary initially dropped at the beginning of the pandemic when most people were home, but once the city started opening up again, the numbers began to rise, breaking even in October and continuing to rise in the final months of the year. Overall, residential burglary rose 3.3% in 2020, despite the stay-home orders in place for most of the year.

The East Division, which includes East Long Beach, Belmont Shore and parts of Central Long Beach, saw a significant rise in residential burglaries with a jump of 25.6% while the North and West Divisions, which include North Long Beach, Bixby Knolls, Wrigley and the Westside, each saw a decrease of about 20%.

Garage, commercial and auto burglary rose dramatically in 2020: by 22.6%, 26.2% and 28.9% respectively.

The South Division, which includes Downtown primarily, saw the largest jump in garage and commercial burglaries, with 127.3% and 82.7% increases respectively. The increase in commercial burglaries appears to correlate with the May 31 civil unrest when dozens of businesses in Downtown were looted. The LBPD counted 94 total commercial burglaries reported in June of the 148 total for the year.

The North Division actually saw little to no change in garage and commercial burglary, but a 41.7% increase in auto burglaries.

One crime that is notably down citywide is rape. In 2019, Long Beach saw a rise of 17.8% in reports of rape, which experts attributed to the #MeToo movement and the increased awareness of what constitutes sexual assault. Just one year later, after statewide stay-at-home orders were in place most of the year, reports of rape have dropped by 3.6%— from 251 incidents in 2019 to 242 incidents in 2020.

Arson also continued on the upward trend it’s been following the last five years with 126 incidents in 2020, compared to 114 in 2019. A fire department spokesman said then that the department was seeing more “spree arson,” meaning one person was starting multiple small fires in a row and each one is counted as a separate arson. In late 2020, an apartment building in Central Long Beach was victim to four suspicious fires in three months.

These crime fluctuations aren’t unique to Long Beach. They’ve been felt all over the country and in nearby Los Angeles. LAPD Chief Michel Moore said on Monday that overall crime decreased by 9% in his jurisdiction, including property crime by 11.1%, a stark difference from Long Beach where those two categories increased. However, LA saw a much steeper increase in homicides at 36.2%, Moore said. Long Beach’s number of homicides only increased 5.9%.

In a report from the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, which is a nonpartisan criminal justice think tank, the commission analyzed crime statistics from 28 cities across the country from January through October. Similar to Long Beach’s stats, the commission found that residential burglaries and larcenies fell while vehicle thefts and violent crimes increased.

“Quarantines reduced residential burglary,” the authors wrote in their conclusion. “When businesses are closed, there is no shoplifting. Selling drugs on the street is more difficult when there are fewer people on the street, and drug arrests fall when police priorities divert them from drug enforcement.”

The report authors pointed to pandemic measures as a possible hindrance to crime prevention, such as social distancing requirements preventing outreach workers from engaging with those at risk of violent crimes on the streets. They also noted how mass protests seemed to coincide with the rise in violent crime.

“The precipitous rise in homicide and assaults in the late spring of 2020 coincided with the emergence of mass protests after George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, although the connection, if any, between the social unrest and heightened violence remains uncertain,” they said.

It’s not clear where exactly the violence in Long Beach is coming from. While social media commenters are quick to blame shootings and crime on rising gang tensions, those involved in the neighborhoods aren’t totally convinced.

Ninth District Councilman Rex Richardson said at a recent virtual meeting for the DeForest Park Neighborhood Association that he doesn’t believe all the recent shootings are related to gangs.

“What I can tell you is there is no indication that this is some growing, escalating organized criminal situation that’s happening,” Richardson said of recent shootings in North Long Beach. “It seems like there have been individual violent events. Not OK, but very different from when there’s been some big gang war brewing. Having been engaged in the community for over 10 years now, I know the difference between the two.”

The LBPD says as of now, about 44.4% of criminal homicides were connected to gang violence, while 8.3% was connected to domestic violence. A police spokeswoman noted the percentages are evolving and could change as cases are investigated and motives are determined.

Dan Pressburg, president of the DPNA, said in an interview that he believes the rise in crime is because of a “perfect storm” of the pandemic and economic crisis with what was already there: a lack of communication, not enough police officers and a lack of consistent division commanders. He pointed out that the commanders for each police division change about every two years, making fostering relationships with the community difficult.

“We need to have that community relationship and we don’t,” Pressburg said.

After calls to defund the police during protests over the killing of George Floyd and a pandemic-fueled budget shortfall, the LBPD had about $10 million cut from its approximately $260 million budget. Much of that came from eliminating unfilled positions in LBPD’s traffic unit and converting 16 officer positions to civilian positions.

Early on in the pandemic, state and county officials also released thousands of inmates early and ordered $0 bail for lower-level offenses to ease overcrowding and try to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in jails. Those released included nonviolent offenders, those with less than a month left on their sentences and those awaiting trial on nonviolent offenses.

Staff reporters Alena Maschke and Sebastian Echeverry contributed to this report. 

See the LBPD’s full crime statistics here.

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Valerie Osier is the Social Media & Newsletter Manager for the Long Beach Post. She started at the Post in 2018 as a breaking news reporter. She’s a Riverside native who found her love for journalism while at community college. She graduated from the Cal State Long Beach journalism program in 2017 and covered the Palos Verdes Peninsula for the Daily Breeze prior to coming to the Post. She lives in Long Beach with her husband and two cats.
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