Crime statistics are a loaded weapon.
They can be pointed in any direction, to mean anything: To law enforcement, rising crime usually means police departments need more officers, or that prison sentences aren’t high enough to deter crime. To criminal justice reform advocates, the same statistics might show that, in context, crime is down, and long-term legislative changes to the criminal code are working.
So how do we interpret California’s crime statistics? What to make of the fact that 2023 has started with a string of back-to-back-to-back mass shootings? Or that a spike in homicides in the first year of the pandemic continued the following year, while property crime increased after a 2020 dip? How many years of data do we need to create responsive policy?
The answer, according to those who study the issue – and aren’t running for office or stoking a political agenda — is: Don’t jump to conclusions.
For one thing, the way crime data is collected in California and across the country is inconsistent. Law enforcement agencies self-report their crime data to the FBI, which each year publishes the Uniform Crime Reporting Program. The California Department of Justice then produces statewide reports from those numbers.
But not every department reports its statistics. And among those that do, some don’t report all their data — or report the information differently. Some jurisdictions log every incident; others only report crimes that lead to incarceration.
Then there are the circumstances beyond the bounds of each jurisdiction. In the 2020 data, the first year of pandemic lockdowns, some police departments and sheriff’s offices across the state made fewer arrests for lower-level crimes. Fewer people were taken to jail, and a number of people incarcerated in jails and prisons were granted early releases.
Researchers are also wary of sweeping conclusions about crime spikes, knowing long-range data may reveal far less alarming trends.
In all, crime numbers are subject to human error and misinterpretation. They can also be manipulated, as whistleblowers have claimed.
But from the available data — the latest of which is from 2021 — here is a snapshot of crime in California.
Homicide in California
California’s homicide rate climbed for another year in 2021, marking the state’s highest homicide rate in at least a decade.
California experienced a homicide spike in 2020: The number of homicides increased by 31% from 2019. But a long-range look at crime statistics, particularly homicide data, shows that the 2020 crime rate nationally and in California was still a fraction of its highs in the early 1990s.
Kern County once again had the state’s highest homicide rate in 2021, at 13.7 homicides per 100,000 people. That was also the case last year, when the county’s homicide rate per 100,000 people was 12.7 in 2020 — the state’s highest — or about one for every 8,000 people. Statewide, the average homicide rate climbed to 6 people per 100,000. In 2020, the statewide homicide rate was 5.5.
In Kern County, the homicide rate per 100,000 people was 12.7 in 2020 — the state’s highest — or about one for every 8,000 people. Statewide, the average homicide rate was 5.5.
Some parts of California were able to suppress a spike in homicides. Monterey County’s homicide rate, once as high as 13.8 people per 100,000 in 2015, has dropped significantly, and in 2020 was lower than the statewide average at 3.2 per 100,000.
Someone she knows
In California, homicide victims and their relationship to their killers looks starkly different for women vs. men.
For homicides of women in which police could identify a suspect, 84% were friends, acquaintances, family members or relatives of the women killed. Spouses specifically were suspected in 12% of homicides in which women were victims.
Only 16% of suspects in the killings of women were strangers, according to the California Department of Justice.
That wasn’t true for men: More than 40% of suspects in the killings of men were strangers.
A significant number of suspects in the homicides of both men and women had an unknown relationship to their victims, justice department figures show.
Gun deaths on the rise
California homicides caused by firearms continued to increase in 2021, the second consecutive year of a higher homicide rate by firearms after a three-year decline.
Statewide, 1,734 people were killed by guns in 2021, the most recent year for which data is available.
For the first time in nearly a decade, handguns made up more than half of the weapons used in homicides – 51% of people killed in California in 2021 were killed by handguns. The number is almost certainly higher, since 21% of all firearm homicides reported by police did not specify or could not determine the type of firearm used.
Property crime and the pandemic
Perhaps it’s no surprise that property crimes dipped significantly during the first year of the pandemic amid curfews and lockdown orders. In fact, 2020 was a historically low year for property crime, according to statistics reported by police departments and sheriff’s offices to the California Department of Justice.
It also shouldn’t be a surprise that property crime returned to pre-pandemic levels in 2021 as restrictions eased.
According to a separate analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California that tabulated four major cities’ preliminary crime data, property crime in 2021 was up in Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego and San Francisco between Jan. 1, 2020, and Oct. 31, 2021.
That followed a dip in which property crime in 2020 reached a six-decade low.
“While the specific factors driving fluctuations in crime numbers in the wake of the COVID health crisis are very difficult to determine, the data suggest that overall both violent and property crime are back to pre-pandemic levels,” the institute’s authors wrote.
Among California’s five largest counties – Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino — property crime fell slightly from 2015 to 2019, with a pandemic dip beginning in March 2020. The same trend held true for Alameda and Sacramento counties in Northern California.
A spate of smash-and-grab retail thefts in the Bay Area and Los Angeles in November and the burglarizing of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s own wine shop in San Francisco drew headlines. Newsom’s 2022 budget proposal included $300 million over three years to combat retail theft, most of it through grants to local law enforcement.
California hate crimes: Who’s being targeted?
Hate crimes increased for a second consecutive year in California in 2021.
In 2021, 1,762 hate crimes were reported in California, up from 1,530 in 2020.
Nearly 70% of hate crimes reported as “closed” in 2021 were violent crimes. Of those, most were intimidation, simple assault or aggravated assault.
Of all hate crimes reported as “closed” in 2021, the majority were directed against someone’s race, ethnicity or national origin.
Reports of anti-Asian hate crimes spiked dramatically in 2021, part of a national trend of hate crimes against Asian people. There were 247 anti-Asian hate crimes reported in 2021 in California, up from 89 in 2020.
Anti-Asian bias was the primary factor in 21% of anti-bias crimes statewide. Asians make up 15% of Californians.
Among hate crimes directed at someone’s race or ethnicity, Black people made up 44% of victims. Black people make up just 6.5% of California’s population, according to 2021 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Criminal complaints against police officers
Since 2016, California has been publishing the number of complaints made against law enforcement officers by the public and how many were “sustained” – or deemed to be “true, by a preponderance of evidence.”
Before 2016, the Department of Justice only published statewide data without listing specific agencies.
Now, five years of data shows which departments received the most complaints, and at what rate they sustained those complaints.
The data shows that, since 2016, law enforcement agencies statewide sustained 9.8% of criminal complaints against their officers.
But there were wide variations. For instance, in 2017, the Department of Corrections sustained 22% of complaints against its officers — nearly triple the statewide average.
And in 2018, the Oakland Police Department also upheld criminal complaints against officers at a rate far outpacing the statewide average, an average that skyrocketed in 2021, when the department sustained seven criminal complaints despite only reporting three. The Oakland Police Department also sustained 235 total complaints – criminal and non-criminal – out of 482 total complaints, at a rate of 49%. The department has been under the supervision of an outside monitoring team and a federal judge since 2003, the result of a class action lawsuit settlement that accused Oakland police officers of beating residents and planting evidence.
In 2021, the number of non-criminal complaints filed against police officers in California nearly doubled from 2020, while departments sustained fewer of those complaints than they did the year before.
In 2020, there were 15,826 non-criminal complaints filed against officers. Departments sustained 1,706 of those complaints, for a rate of 10.8%.
In 2021, there were 27,924 non-criminal complaints filed against officers. Departments sustained 1,699 of those complaints, for a rate of 6.1%.
In California, each department is its own fiefdom, with its own rules and procedures for adjudicating complaints.
Not surprisingly, the Los Angeles Police Department — one of the nation’s largest and the state’s most populous city — received the most complaints between 2016 and 2021. The department sustained those complaints at a rate of between 5% and 7%, which is below the statewide average.
How well are California cops clearing their cases?
Every year, most law enforcement agencies in California publish the results of their year: the number of crimes reported to them, and the number of arrests they made. With a little math, this becomes their “clearance rates.”
In 2021, the last year for which data is available, the total statewide clearance rate on non-fatal violent crimes was 40%, compared with 42% nationally. On homicides, clearance rates were 55% in California, compared with 54% nationally.
The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department made far more arrests per non-fatal violent incident than they did for homicides. By contrast, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office cleared an astounding 92% of its 37 homicides, but only 21% of its non-fatal violent crimes.
There’s an important consideration to this data: The arrests are reported as “clearances,” but arrests are not convictions. A clearance doesn’t necessarily mean a crime was solved or anyone was punished. Police also sometimes clear crimes by “exceptional means.”
According to the FBI, this is when police have a suspect and enough evidence to make an arrest, but “a circumstance outside the control of law enforcement” stopped them – the suspect died, for instance, or the victim stopped cooperating.
When officers are injured or killed
From 2011 to 2021, California police officers were most likely to be injured or killed when they arrived at the scene in a vehicle and assisted a non-police agency, like firefighters.
During that period, 37 officers were killed “feloniously,” meaning their deaths were not accidental, according to California Department of Justice data.