LBPD Chief Robert Luna announcing a sweeping gang raid on Feb. 14, 2020. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.
A file photo of LBPD Chief Robert Luna on Feb. 14, 2020. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

In a year unlike any other, Long Beach police say they believe a litany of factors—from unemployment to easier access to firearms—may be driving a surge of gun violence.

In a report to the Long Beach City Council Tuesday night, Chief Robert Luna pointed to a nationwide spike in gun sales, slower court proceedings because of COVID-19, school closures, the cancellation of after-school programs, lack of access to health care, poverty, and pandemic-related prisoner releases all as potential drivers of a 145% spike in the number of shootings.

“We believe that you would find a direct correlation between violent crimes and these socioeconomic factors,” Luna told the council.

He said gun sales have spiked 64% across the country, including more than 110,000 firearms purchased in California alone. According to Luna, his department has seen those weapons end up in the wrong hands with officers having to repeatedly arrest people on weapons charges.

In one case, Luna said, his department arrested one person six times on suspicion of drug and weapons charges over the span of about five years—despite the fact that the suspect was repeatedly convicted and sentenced to prison or jail.

Many major cities across the country are enduring a spike in violent crime. In Long Beach, it’s up 15% through the end of March, which Luna said is being driven by gun violence.

However, Luna pointed out that unlike other major cities where the number of killings are trending up, murders are down in Long Beach. There have been nine murders so far this year in Long Beach, a 22% decline from 2020, police said.

“Whether it’s one murder, five, or whatever, this is unacceptable,” Luna said. “And I really do want to remind everyone that every victim absolutely matters. These are family members, friends, neighbors that are significantly traumatized every time somebody is killed.”

To fight the surge in shootings, Luna said the department has convened a “coordinated response team” that he said had significantly reduced gun violence since its creation in late February.

The team is made up of 18 employees including gang detectives, a public information officer and a crime analyst that Luna said have keyed in on certain neighborhoods that have been affected by violent crime. Those employees have been reassigned from their normal jobs to be on the team.

The team has made 38 arrests and seized over 38 guns and helped prosecutors file 85 felony charges, Luna said.

Luna said this has helped reduce shootings in the city since Feb. 19, but shootings are still up significantly from last year.

In the first quarter of 2021, there were 130 shootings, including 54 where someone was wounded, according to LBPD stats. That’s compared to 53 total shootings in the first quarter of 2020, including 27 where someone was wounded.

A map Luna shared showed many of those shootings were concentrated in North and Central Long Beach.

After convening the coordinated response team, shootings dropped citywide 36% compared to the first few weeks of the year. But Luna’s map showed the gun violence remained relatively stubborn in areas of Central Long Beach and on the outskirts of Downtown.

A map shared by LBPD Chief Robert Luna showing the change in shooting frequency since the deployment deployed a new special response team.

The Washington neighborhood has been an especially hard-hit area when it comes to violent crime, and in March the department announced it was sending officers to the area to patrol on foot to build up trust in the neighborhood. It’s one of the department’s pilot programs to try and get a handle on the uptick in crime.

“I’m stealing from other places to make these units work so we can reduce some of these shootings out there,” Luna said.

Despite taking about a 5% budget cut due to the pandemic, the Police Department along with the Fire Department make up about two-thirds of the city’s entire general fund budget.

Funding was a concern of Long Beach Health and Human Services Director Kelly Colopy, who also spoke Tuesday night about the efforts her department has made in past decades to prevent violence through early intervention programs focused on education, strengthening families and improving community health, which have often depended on temporary funding.

“The city has done some great work on violence and gang prevention, yet each effort is an unfunded mandate or grant-funded and when the funding ends, the program ended,” Colopy said.

The City Council set aside $5 million in March as part of the Long Beach Rescue Act to help fund youth mentoring, programming in parks and libraries, and reentry programs.

Mayor Robert Garcia said that those programs will be just as important as the recovery of the economy from the pandemic, which multiple council members and Garcia pointed to as a potential cause for the rise in violence.

Garcia also said that the recent crime statistics and violent crime increase need to be put in historical context. While the city is experiencing an increase in violent crime, the crime rates are much lower than when they peaked in 1991.

“Just comparing one month to one month, or one year to one year doesn’t give us enough data to understand what the trends are,” Garcia said. “Our challenge today is real and every single person is affected. It’s painful, and we want to see everyone safe. But I’m also grateful that the crime rates of the ’90s, the ’80s and the 2000s, that that is also in our past and we’ve had less homicides and less violence crime than we had.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to show Luna said murders are down 22%, not homicides.

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.