By Peter Kiefer, LA Magazine
ON a crisp Friday evening in early December, dozens of guests were milling about the backyard of a $5 million Spanish revival home perched high above the sloping chaparral of Temescal Canyon. It was a holiday event for a financial firm, but despite the flowing booze and endless tray sof appetizers, a pall hung over the festivities.
Throughout the fall and into the winter, a wave of inexplicable violence and mayhem seemed to have descended on the city, and it appeared to be getting worse. That very morning, news broke of yet another sensational crime: Jacqueline Avant, a beloved philanthropist, wife of music icon Clarence Avant, and mother-in-law to Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos—one of the most powerful men in Hollywood—had been fatally shot in her Trousdale Estates Beverly Hills home, the latest in a series of random home invasions that had terrorized the Westside. Her alleged killer was arrested a few hours later after accidentally shooting himself during another home invasion in Hollywood. But his capture did little to soothe frayed nerves. As waiters bustled about, word of Avant’s slaying passed from one shocked guest to another. Many noted that the 81-year-old hadn’t been alone when she was murdered—a 24-hour private security guard had been on duty during her assault.
If it could happen to her, in Beverly Hills of all places, who could feel
Sadly, at this particular moment in L.A., the answer to that question is apparently nobody, not even guests at a party above Temescal Canyon in Pacific Palisades, one of the safest, wealthiest neighborhoods in the city. Because even as these partygoers mingled and gossiped in that backyard, sharing stories of the city’s spreading crime surge, two masked and hooded invaders had managed to slip past the caterers in the kitchen and into the house. The gunmen ambushed two women as they were retrieving their coats before leaving the fete, according to reports. Against the din of the party, they instructed the guests to stare at the ground as they relieved them of their belongings.
It wasn’t a particularly lucrative haul: some jewelry, a wallet, iPhones, a smart watch, and a Lakers championship paperweight that one of the gunman had snagged from the house. But it was good enough. Security footage shows the two gunmen brazenly walking out the front door with their loot.
To put it mildly, these are scary times in Los Angeles. Since November, there have been dozens of dramatic smash-and-grab heists at Nordstrom, Louis Vuitton, Saks Fifth Avenue, and other high-end stores. The Grove, victim of several such “smash mob” attacks, started installing barbed-wire-like fencing around its property every night to deter invaders, while the tony boutiques of Rodeo Drive have added dozens of security guards to patrol their floors. From South L.A. (where a CVS was ransacked by a mob of looters) to Studio City (where a man was attacked while taking out the garbage from his house, then tied up along with his disabled son and forced to watch while his home was plundered) to Hancock Park (where a mother pushing a baby in a stroller was robbed in her driveway and 24-year-old Brianna Kupfer was stabbed to death while working at a furniture on North La Brea on January 13), you can all but smell the fear on the streets. Even in zip codes where violent crime was once unheard of, residents are starting to sweat.
“I have to get an armed driver to go out at night, and I’m constantly checking my rearview to make sure I’m not being followed,” complains the wife of a prominent Bel-Air financier. “I don’t dare wear jewelry or nice bags when I go out. It’s no fun in this town anymore. If this continues much longer, I’m moving to Palm Beach.”
“There’s a lot of paranoia out there, that’s for sure,” says Dean Cryer, vice president of operations for the L.A.-based firm Panic Room Builders, who build custom safe rooms equipped with emergency phone lines and independent water supplies that can cost from the low six figures to millions of dollars. Cryer’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing, with business up more than 1,000 percent in just the past 30 days. “People aren’t even questioning it now. Folks would usually say, ‘We’ll think about it and get back to you next month.’ Now, they’re saying, ‘I want it, and I want it now.’”
Nor is the paranoia confined to the privileged. Gang violence has increased dramatically in the past six months. Gun shops across the city, in every neighborhood, are reporting record sales, with lines now regularly stretching around the block. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reports that applications for concealed-weapons licenses have been soaring, a development that has been encouraged by the sheriff himself, who after contemplating the closure of gun shops during the worst of the pandemic, reversed himself and allowed them to stay open as “critical infrastructure.”
STILL, FOR ALL THE FRENZY over rising crime rates, it’s not entirely accurate to say that Los Angeles is turning into Gotham City—at least not if you look at the numbers. Murders are way up, that’s true (by 53.9 percent over the last two years), but robberies are actually down (12 percent since 2019, although there was a 5 percent uptick just in 2021), and L.A.’s crime problem is no greater than many other major American metropolises. (In fact, cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Houston are seeing even larger spikes.) Despite the dramatic increase in violent offenses, L.A.’s overall crime rate remains far lower than it was, say, 40 years ago, when gang warfare and the crack epidemic wreaked havoc on our streets. In 1992, there were 2,589 homicides in Los Angeles, six times more than there were in 2021.
Still, something is going on because it certainly feels as if the Joker has ridden into town. And that perception not only has Angelenos scared, it has them looking for someone to blame.
To some, it’s the homeless crisis and the widening national wealth gap, nowhere more gaping than in L.A., that explains the current crime wave. To others, it’s social media apps like Citizen and Nextdoor, with their unrelenting notifications about knife-wielding maniacs and stolen vehicles on every block, that are fueling the mood of fear and insecurity. Still others point to what they see as the city’s deep political dysfunction, with Mayor Eric Garcetti, once a vocal supporter of the Defund the Police movement, packing his bags and preparing for his new post as ambassador to India, while L.A. County District Attorney George Gascón battles a revolt among his own prosecutors for his supposedly “soft on crime” criminal justice reforms.
But even if the crime wave everyone is talking about turns out to be wildly exaggerated—a mass psychological overreaction to a few sensational but rare criminal outbreaks—it’s still changing the way people are thinking and feeling and living. And maybe even voting. Otherwise solidly blue liberals, card-carrying NPR listeners who once marched in the BLM protests, have lately been overheard whispering about the need to refund the police and put criminals behind bars. If it goes on like this for much longer, L.A.’s political future could conceivably take a turn for the once-unimaginable.
“This crime wave feels different,” says Grove owner and probable 2022 mayoral candidate Rick Caruso (although he claims he hasn’t yet decided if he’ll run, Caruso announced on Twitter this week that he’s now a registered Democrat — a signal that he’s likely running). “There’s a brazenness to the criminals. And I think that, coupled with a lack of competence in the leadership of the city to get this under control, is causing new levels of fear. It’s happening in every corner of the city and not in just one isolated part. That’s scary.”
IT MAY HELP to remember that L.A. has been here before. Repeatedly. The slaughter of actress Sharon Tate and four others on Cielo Drive in 1969 by members of the Manson family was a turning point in the history of the city. The Tate-LaBianca murders scrambled California’s image of itself as a bastion of bohemian counterculture, harshing the buzz of innocence and safety that was pervasive across much of the West. For the first time, people who lived in upscale neighborhoods in L.A. started locking their doors. Most haven’t unlocked them since.
There were the Watts riots of 1965, and the Rodney King riots of 1992 (when a phalanx of police officers was deployed around the borders of Beverly Hills). Serial slayer scares—like the Golden State Killer, the Night Stalker, and the Grim Sleeper—also kept L.A. from sleeping at various times over the decades. In a lot of ways, crime has been as much a part of the backdrop of this city as palm trees, juice bars, and porn stars.
What’s different this time is the climate. These days, Americans—including Angelenos—are so polarized, we can’t even agree on what crime is anymore. One man’s riot and looting is another’s legitimate protest against the corrupt, racist law enforcement establishment. One woman’s bloody insurrection is another’s patriotic protest against a rigged election. The very definition of crime, like everything else in America right now, has been politicized. So how is it remotely possible to marshal an effective response to a crime wave when people can’t even decide if one is going on?
On the one hand, there’s the Los Angeles Times, which argued in a December 15 story that the supposed crime wave, specifically, reports of a rash of retail invasions, was being overblown. The paper then doubled down with an editorial arguing that the supposed crime wave was fake, designed to thwart DA Gascón’s criminal justice reforms. “A higher level of thinking is in order,” it concluded.
On the other hand, there are people like Marc Debbaudt, former president of the L.A. Association of Deputy District Attorneys, who after reading the Times’s editorial, went on Facebook to declare it “bullshit.” Or L.A. Police Chief Michel Moore, who in December told the L.A. police commission that there was a “surge” in criminal violence that was “expanding” and that the LAPD needed to “draw particular focus and laser attention” to what he clearly saw as a crisis. Or Jamie McBride, director of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, who made national news this fall when he warned tourists not to come to L.A. during Christmas, comparing the city to The Purge movies, in which citizens get one day a year to kill one another without consequences. Granted, McBride, a vocal Trump supporter with an alarming on-duty shooting record and a daughter—also a cop—who is under investigation for shooting an unarmed motorist (six times) in 2020, kind of fits the description of the right-wing fake-news spreader the Times was referring to. But still.
Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes is Frank Zimring, a law professor and criminologist at the University of California, Berkeley. He reviewed some recent L.A. statistics and arrived at a much more nuanced conclusion. Yes, there’s been an uptick in some criminal activity, but it hasn’t been nearly as explosive as people have been assuming. And it certainly doesn’t match the crime sprees of the 1980s and early 1990s.
“These short-term trends we’re seeing aren’t cheerful, but they’re not terrifying,” Zimring says. “If the annual increases of the last two years continue for another two or three years, it will be a major concern, but there’s no reason to expect that to happen. We should keep watch, but the current situation justifies quiet concern not alarm bells.”
And yet . . . those alarm bells continue to ring—a lot of the time, on people’s phones.
As in many American cities, L.A.’s local news ecosystem has been decimated over the past 20 years as newsroom budgets have been slashed, and that has left an information vacuum. Social media has, for better or for worse, filled it. Apps like Nextdoor and Citizen—where residents post their own reports of trash fires, stolen bicycles, and vandalized automobiles—have been feeding residents hyperlocal amateur bulletins 24/7, accompanied by Pavlovian alert tones that can wreak havoc on one’s peace of mind. Mostly, these apps were intended as benign spaces for neighbors to share tips. But there are other more extreme online feeds that obviously have an agenda, which is to portray L.A. as a dystopian hellscape. Spend a few minutes browsing Streets of Los Angeles on Instagram—a caught-on-camera clearinghouse of burning RVs, police shootings, vandalism, muggings, and robberies—and you’ll never want to open your door again. The site has 271,000 followers.
Nor is it just social media that’s been stoking fear and loathing: Some old media players have been dumping on L.A. to score cheap political points. Fox News, for instance, has for months been portraying Los Angeles as a lawless badlands by airing reports on the supposed disintegration of civilization around the 405, conveniently ignoring the fact that New York, where Fox News broadcasts from, has a nearly identical violent-crime rate.
Before he entered public service—becoming an aide to former county supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky—Joel Bellman covered crime at KBIG-FM and then at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner in the 1980s. His well-informed take on the fear that is choking L.A. at the moment? People need to get a grip.
“We’ve been spoiled for so long with declining crime rates that people are going nuts because they don’t know what a real crime wave looks like anymore,” he says.
Bellman laments the loss of seasoned newsroom editors who were around back during his Examiner days and who could have helped keep these current events in perspective. “L.A. in the 1980s felt like New York in the 1970s,” he says. “But people are being whipped into this frenzy even though the crime rates are nowhere near what they were. It feels different because we’re out of practice.”
“WHAT DO YOU CALL a Republican in a big city?” asks Antonio Villaraigosa. “A Democrat that’s been mugged.”
It’s Christmas Eve and the former mayor is driving around downtown L.A. trying to find a cup of coffee before he heads to a nearby mission to feed the homeless. It’s been nine years since Villaraigosa exited City Hall, leaving behind a mixed legacy. He was known during his two terms as L.A’.s “pop star mayor” because of his love of schmoozing with Hollywood celebrities and his high-profile romantic entanglements. (For what it’s worth, he also boosted public transit and revitalized downtown.) Given the state of things today, he’s feeling better about the shape he left the city in. He’s recently been advising Congresswoman Karen Bass on her mayoral campaign, and he’s aware that the city’s homeless crisis and spike in crime will be central to the race.
Of course, L.A. isn’t the only city where crime is having an impact on politics. New York City’s new mayor, Eric Adams, a former cop, spent his first 48 hours in office reiterating his campaign pledges of bringing safety back to the streets of New York, which experienced a spike in shootings and homicides last year. Next year’s race for California attorney general—the state’s top cop—will also likely center on these issues. Anne Marie Schubert, the district attorney of Sacramento County and one of the prosecutors who helped convict the Golden State Killer, is already hammering incumbent Rob Bonta, an appointee of Governor Gavin Newsom, for being too soft on crime. That race could end up being a close one.
Perhaps the most stunning political turnaround came in December, when San Francisco Mayor London Breed, a Black progressive in arguably the most liberal city in America, made an abrupt about-face. After pledging last February to divert $120 million that had been earmarked for law enforcement to helping the city’s Black communities with social workers and other non-police services, Breed changed her mind. In a fiery, expletive-laden press conference, she endorsed an extraordinary emergency police intervention in the drug- and crime-riddled Tenderloin neighborhood. San Francisco, Breed said, needed to be “less tolerant of all the bullshit that has destroyed our city.”
Naturally, Fox News seized on her comments as proof that the Defund the Police movement, which had sprung up in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder and carried a number of progressives (like DA Gascón) to office in 2020, had been an abject failure. Equally unsurprisingly, Breed’s base—or at least what used to be her base—were infuriated by her reversal.
“London Breed is deploying police in high-end areas, near a Louis Vuitton store, which is intended to make white people feel safe,” says Melina Abdullah, professor of Pan-African Studies at California State University, Los Angeles, and a cofounder of the L.A. chapter of Black Lives Matter. ”I came of age in the 1990s when my friends were getting killed every week. I remember those crime waves, and that’s not what we’re seeing or feeling despite the narrative being put forth by the pro-police forces. What’s different now is the police have become more skilled at constructing narratives.”
But here’s the point: If even the super-progressive mayor of deep-blue San Francisco is sensing a change in the political winds when it comes to law-enforcement policy, then the same can certainly happen in L.A. In fact, to some degree, it already has. After calling for LAPD budget cuts in the past few years, several city council members, including Paul Koretz and Paul Krekorian, used their own district’s funds to pay for increased police presence and will soon be voting on a proposal for a 12 percent bump to the LAPD’s budget. Newsom has also pledged $300 million statewide to help combat retail theft. But the real measure of how much crime has impacted L.A. politics will obviously come in November, when the city will choose its next mayor. Currently, Bass, a popular six-term congresswoman, is the front-runner in that race, but if conditions don’t improve, that could leave plenty of room for more law-and-order candidates to take the lead—like council member Joe Buscaino, a former cop who has promised to boost the LAPD force to 11,000 members if elected. And that guy who installed barbed wire-like fencing around the Grove could also prove a formidable candidate, if he actually decides to run.
“You had the city council and the mayor embracing the defunding of cops, which sent the wrong message,” says Caruso, sounding like he’s test-driving a stump speech. “We have a DA’s office that has delayed criminal hearings and eliminated bail and many other crimes. The mayor and city council need to take a big dose of responsibility for not doing much to correct it.”
On his way to feed the homeless at the soup kitchen, Villaraigosa warns his future successor, whomever it may be, that there may be no other issue at all when people start casting their votes this fall. “People had the luxury of beating me up about it because the city was safe,” he says. “But when it’s not safe, it’s the only thing people think about. You can’t have chaos and that’s what we have.”
A RECENT VIRAL video, taken at a Rite Aid in Venice Beach in December, shows a woman wielding a pickax as she drags her shopping cart around the store. As she shouts a series of expletives, customers can be seen entering and exiting the pharmacy, barely giving her a glance. Other customers can be seen browsing the aisles or standing in the checkout line, seemingly unperturbed by a woman with a deadly weapon shouting at the top of her lungs.
Around the same time, a CVS in Hollywood was ransacked by over 100 looters, who fled the scene as quickly as they came. Witnesses describe a similarly banal tableau. A custodian gently swept up the mess outside, as pharmacy workers waited for the police to arrive (it took 30 minutes). Shoppers didn’t wait; they were already back inside, browsing the aisles. Nobody seemed particularly surprised, or even disturbed, by what had happened.
This is where we are in L.A. right now—scared, confused, upset, but also shockingly inured to what’s become of our city. And not just our city, but the whole of America, where even those sworn to uphold the law (and the Constitution) sometimes seem to have nothing but contempt for it. No big deal, nothing to see here.
“People have lost faith in institutions, whether it’s the government, universities, or law enforcement,” notes Meghan Daum, a former columnist at the L.A. Times and author of the book The Problem with Everything: My Journey Though the New Culture Wars.
It’s not just crime that has worn down American resolve: The U.S. is expected to blow past 900,000 COVID-related deaths in the coming months, and yet there are still debates over vaccines and masking. The net worth of a handful of billionaires grew by more than $3.6 trillion in the last year, and yet at the same time 100 million people across the globe fell into extreme poverty. The world can seem cold and indifferent and spectacularly unfair, and it’s precisely that sort of environment, perhaps, more than anything else, that breeds crime.
“It’s a mix of people’s survival instinct and the ‘I want to get mine’ moment that we’re in,” Daum says. “People are trying to protect themselves by buying crypto or buying a gun or hoarding canned goods. It does seem like we’re in a ‘choose your own reality’ moment.” And it’s impacting everyone, from janitors at Rite Aid to the planet’s biggest celebrity. “The world is upside down,” Oprah Winfrey tweeted when she heard the news about her friend Jacqueline being murdered in her home in Beverly Hills.
Back in Pacific Palisades, residents are still reeling from the murder of Kupfer who grew up there and the brazen stickup at that holiday party that occurred in their neighborhood. But they’ve chosen not to comment on the party, at least not for publication. Maybe it’s to avoid embarrassing the hosts and exacerbating an already uncomfortable situation. Or perhaps, like those shoppers at Rite Aid and CVS, they have simply grown habituated to the scary world we now live in. Or maybe they are simply trying to will it away, as if it never happened, because in this highly privileged enclave, events like that are never supposed to happen.
Except, for now, they clearly do.