LOS ANGELES - Homicides in California increased again last year — as did other violent crimes — amid rising frustration as the state’s top Democrats are seeking to keep their jobs in upcoming elections.
The state Department of Justice released its annual crime reports Thursday, showing upticks in violent crime and property crime rates in 2021 even as the total arrest rate decreased.
Californians across the state have been deluged with headlines about rising crime in recent months, from rampant car break-ins and drug use in San Francisco’s troubled Tenderloin district to street racing and illegal takeovers across Los Angeles's new $588-million Sixth Street Bridge.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta are among the Democrats facing challengers in November and are struggling to explain how their policies are keeping the state safe. San Francisco’s progressive district attorney was ousted from his post in June, and his counterpart in LA just survived a second recall attempt.
Three Bonta opponents in the June primary all tried to make an issue of rising crime and the Democrat’s support for criminal justice reforms when he was in the Legislature. Bonta still advanced with nearly 60% of the vote in heavily Democratic California. But his Republican opponent in November’s general election — Nathan Hochman, a former federal prosecutor and former assistant U.S. attorney general — has continued criticizing Bonta on crime.
The new numbers "reflect what Californians have been experiencing every day: a spiral of lawlessness," Hochman said.
Bonta’s reports noted that the current number of homicides and the violent crime rate remain significantly below historical highs set in the early 1990s, while the property crime rate is far below its historical high in 1980. But Hochman said that comparison "demonstrates how out of touch he is with the suffering of victims across the state today."
Bonta was in San Diego on Thursday to tout the state’s tough gun control laws, which he says are keeping homicides from being worse.
"We all know the gun violence epidemic plaguing communities across our nation is sickening and it’s unacceptable," Bonta said, without addressing the increase in homicides and violent crime in his office’s reports.
He added: "You are less likely to get shot and killed in California than in Texas, than in Florida, than in nearly every other state in the nation because of our common-sense gun laws."
The red states are also favorite targets of Newsom, who is overwhelmingly favored to beat little-known Republican state Sen. Brian Dahle in November. But Newsom also is seen as a potential White House candidate and high crime at home would be an inviting target for opponents.
Thursday’s reports came two months after Bonta’s department wrongly made public the personal information of perhaps hundreds of thousands of gun owners in state-operated databases. The state’s criminal justice data portal was offline for weeks in the aftermath and only relaunched Thursday after the 2021 reports were released.
There were 2,361 homicides in California last year, surpassing 2020′s figure by more than 150 deaths, according to the reports. While the number remains far below the historic high — 4,095 homicides in 1993 — last year was the deadliest year since 2007.
Three-quarters of 2021′s homicides involved a firearm, and more than eight in 10 of the victims were male. Nearly half of the people killed last year were Hispanic and nearly 30% were Black. By contrast, about 5% of the state’s population is Black and about 39% Latino, according to the 2020 census.
About 40% were killed by strangers, 40% by friends or acquaintances and the remainder by a relative — a spouse, parent or child, the reports state. More than half of women were killed in a residence, while more than 40% of male victims died on the street.
"Today’s report further solidifies what decades of research have shown: More guns on our streets leads to more gun violence; and community safety is inextricably tied to economic, racial, and social equity," said Anne Irwin, founder and executive director of Smart Justice California, in a statement.
The state’s violent crime rate increased from 437 per 100,000 people in 2020 to 466.2 per 100,000 in 2021. The property crime rate ticked up 3% in 2021 after hitting a historic low in 2020.
Meanwhile, the total arrest rate decreased — from 2,812.3 per 100,000 people in 2020 to 2,606.3 per 100,000 in 2021 — as part of a downward trend since 2004.
Bonta’s office also released a report showing a continued drop in arrests of juveniles, which have plummeted in recent years — from nearly 63,000 in 2016 to fewer than 20,000 last year.
A final report outlined police use of force, though changes in reporting prevent ready comparisons to previous years. Last year 660 civilians were involved in such incidents that resulted in the discharge of a firearm or a use of force that brought serious injury or death. By racial breakdown, half were of Hispanic origin, one-quarter white and about 17% Black people.