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Homicide -- Los Angeles, 1970-1979

Since the mid-1950s, the risk of homicide in the city of Los Angeles, California, has increased sixfold (1). The largest 10-year absolute increase (84.0%) occurred from 1970 to 1979, when rates rose from 12.5 per 100,000 population to 23.0/100,000.

During this decade, 4,950 criminal homicides* occurred in Los Angeles, an average rate of 17.1 homicides/100,000 population (2). Homicide victims were most likely to be male and young and of a minority group. Males were almost four times more likely to become homicide victims (27.0/100,000) than were females (7.3/100,000). The homicide rate for males more than doubled during the decade, rising from 19.5 per 100,000 in 1970 to 39.7/100,000 in 1979, compared with an increase of from 6.0/100,000 to 6.6/100,000 for females. Age-specific homicide rates increased in every age category, except persons under age 15, peaking at 26.9/100,000 population in the 25- to 34-year-old group.

Blacks and Hispanics were 5.6 and 2.3 times more likely, respectively, than white non-Hispanics to become homicide victims. Blacks were at greatest risk of victimization, with a rate of 45.6/100,000 population. The greatest absolute increase in homicide rates occurred among blacks, whose rates rose from 35.7/100,000 in 1970 to 61.3/100,000 in 1979. However, the highest percentage increase--over 166.7%--occurred among Hispanics, from 11.1 in 1970 to 29.6 in 1979.

For specific race/ethnic groups by sex, the risk of homicide was greatest for black males, followed by Hispanic males, and black females (Figure 1). Hispanic males were 7.3 times more likely than Hispanic females to be victimized, while black males and white non-Hispanic males were 4.3 and 2.3 times more likely to be victimized than black females and white non-Hispanic females, respectively. Relative differences in race/sex-specific homicide rates were unchanged after rates were age-adjusted.

The increasing homicide rate in Los Angeles during the 1970s can be attributed almost entirely to changes in homicide rates among black and Hispanic males (Figure 2). Rates for white non-Hispanic males were only slightly higher in the latter half of the decade than in the first half, and there was no consistent upward trend. The rates for white non-Hispanic, black, and Hispanic females did not change substantially.

In 56.6% of homicides, victims were killed with some type of gun; handguns were used in 79.3% of these cases. In 23.3% of cases, cutting instruments were used; 10.6% of victims were bludgeoned to death; and 9.6% were killed by other means. Verbal arguments most commonly preceded homicides (32.7% of cases). During the 10-year period, 48.4% of homicides occurred in homes.

Most homicide victims in Los Angeles knew their assailants. In 61.2% of cases, the offender was a member of the victim's family or a person otherwise acquainted with the victim. However, the distribution of victim-offender relationships was different for men and women (Figure 3). A total of 42.7% of women were killed by a family member or intimate acquaintance, compared with 14.9% of men. Women were most likely to be killed by their husbands; men, by friends or acquaintances.

Blood-alcohol tests were completed for 4,092 (82.7%) of the 4,950 homicide victims. Alcohol was detected in 46.0% of victims tested; in 30.2% of victims tested, blood-alcohol levels were 100 mg% or higher,** the legal level of intoxication in most states. Blood-alcohol presence varied markedly by race/ethnicity. Alcohol was detected in 57.0% of all Hispanic victims tested, 47.7% of blacks, 34.5% of white non-Hispanics, and 33.7% of persons in other race/ethnic groups. Reported by F Loya, PhD, NH Allen, MPH, Neuropsychiatric Institute, University of California at Los Angeles, Div of Epidemiology, School of Public Health, University of California at Los Angeles, Los Angeles Police Dept, Los Angeles Medical Examiner-Coroner's Office; LA Vargas, PhD, Children's Psychiatric Hospital, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque; Violence Epidemiology Br, Center for Health Promotion and Education, Epidemiology Program Office, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: The objectives of the Los Angeles study were to identify: (1) groups at greatest risk of homicide victimization; (2) situational and interpersonal characteristics associated with homicide; (3) changes in the risk of homicide victimization over time; (4) patterns of alcohol by homicide victims; and (5) potential approaches to homicide research and prevention. It is intended to serve as a model for epidemiologic analysis of homicide that can be replicated in state and community settings throughout the country.

Compared with rates for other major U.S. urban areas, homicide rates increased markedly in Los Angeles from 1970 to 1979. Between 1970 and 1978, the rate of increase for the Los Angeles/Long Beach Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area (SMSA) was much greater than in any of the other 25 most populous SMSAs in the United States (based on 1970 population estimates) (3). Although the exact causes for this increase are not clear, this pattern is primarily attributable to increasing homicide rates among black and Hispanic males between the ages of 15 and 44 years.

The pattern of highest overall homicide rates in Los Angeles among young black males is also characteristic of the United States as a whole and is supported by studies in other urban areas, including Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Houston, Texas; Chicago, Illinois; and Atlanta, Georgia (4-8). The consistency with which these findings have been reported suggests that the determinants of these patterns are widespread throughout society, rather than associated with specific local environments or points in time. Numerous studies and reports have suggested that two such determinants of the high risk faced by blacks and other minority groups may be poverty and the subculture of violence (8-11).

This study confirmed previous findings that substantial numbers of victims and/or offenders involved in violent crimes consume alcohol before the crimes (4,7,12-15). While the Los Angeles study cannot establish alcohol as a risk factor for homicide, the results further document the strong relationship between patterns of alcohol use and characteristics of the victims (16). Information is needed on blood-alcohol levels in referent populations or in persons who are not homicide victims. Without such data, the prevalence of alcohol in homicide victims may only reflect alcohol consumption patterns in individuals or groups at increased risk of homicide for other reasons.

Neither this study nor official statistics collected by the criminal-justice and health-care systems link acts of criminal violence and resulting injuries to drug activity of victims or offenders. The term "drug activity" can apply to drug use by victims or offenders, as well as to the activities involved in distributing, buying, and selling drugs. Police in New York City examined this linkage and found that 24% of all homicides could be considered drug-related in 1981 (17). Thus, existing databases should be improved to enhance epidemiologic analysis of the associations between homicide and the illicit use, manufacture, or distribution of drugs.

Research has generally focused on the homicide event itself and has rarely addressed the processes that lead to homicide. In the context of family violence, more attention should be paid to the natural history of family abuse. Wife battering is characterized by recurrent injuries to and general medical complaints by the victim (18,19). However, the "battering syndrome" has only been rudimentarily described, and important questions remain to be answered concerning whether the severity of physical assaults escalates over time in the family context; how frequently assaults occur; whether abuse of children and the elderly is associated with spouse abuse; how victims seek help; and how frequently and with what consequences victims have prior contacts with criminal-justice institutions, social-service agencies, and health-care facilities for problems related to nonfatal abuse.

Additionally, knowledge about the frequency and nature of violence between friends and acquaintances could be improved. Young males in minority groups appear to be particularly vulnerable to homicide by friends or acquaintances, suggesting that the forces that account for racial discrepancies in homicide rates may have their greatest influence on violence between friends and acquaintances. Examining the socioeconomic and cultural context in which violence by friends or acquaintances occurs and the means of conflict resolution used by young minority males may be a useful starting point for understanding race/ethnic differences underlying this phenomenon. Topics to be considered are: whether arguments are more frequent among black friends and acquaintances or whether the likelihood of violent resolutions to arguments is greater; whether different race/ethnic groups resolve conflicts differently, and, if so, whether these means are related to the socioeconomic or cultural status of minority groups.

References

  1. Federal Bureau of Investigation. Uniform crime reports: 4th quarterly bulletin, 1934-1941; annual bulletin, 1942-1957, crime in the U.S., 1957-1978. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice.

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