DTLA - Just before 3 a.m. on Sept. 22, a homeless man was beaten to death in the Historic Core. The body of 61-year-old Donald Sandstrom was discovered later that morning in a parking lot at 710 S. Spring St. The Los Angeles Police Department ruled it a homicide and said Sandstrom was killed by blunt-force trauma to the head. An investigation into the killing continues.
It marked the 16th homicide of what is proving to be an exceptionally deadly year in Downtown Los Angeles. With more than two months remaining in 2017, the murder rate is vastly outpacing the 11 Central Division homicides recorded for the entire year in both 2015 and 2016. It is already nearly triple the six homicides in 2014.
Downtown is on pace to have its highest murder rate since 2003, when 18 people were killed.
Central Division Capt. Marc Reina said there is no thread that explains the increase in deaths. He pointed out that a large number of the killings took place at the start of the year.
“It’s not like something’s trending, like say in South L.A., where there’s a gang feud or something,” Reina said. “There’s nothing like that that you can put your finger on.”
Nine of the killings occurred in the first quarter of 2017, according to Det. Tricia Hauck, Central Division’s homicide coordinator. She called that concentration of murders “highly unusual.”
Five of the deaths took place in January, the first on Jan. 2, and the second on Jan. 10. Three people were killed on Jan. 26; two of them died in a single incident in Chinatown.
Whether this is an unfortunate string of events, or an indicator that Downtown is becoming a more dangerous place, is uncertain. Crime does not have a steady line, according to Dr. Jorja Leap, a professor of social welfare at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs and an expert on gang culture. She added that it is too soon to tell if this marks an overall trend or just a random, temporary spike.
Following the five cases in January, there were deaths “almost monthly” until July, according to Hauck. After that, she said, there were no killings for more than two months until the incident at 710 S. Spring St. last month.
This spike in killings comes amid an overall increase in violent crime this year. There were 1,525 violent crime incidents in Central Division through September, compared to 1,305 in the same period last year, a 16.9% increase, according to Central Division statistics. Of the 11 homicides in Downtown last year, eight occurred in the first nine months.
Nine of the 16 homicides this year were in the 50 blocks that make up Skid Row. Hauck said most of those incidents stemmed from disputes between people in the neighborhood. Some of the suspects were homeless, while others lived in low-income buildings, she added.
The seven other killings have been spread across Downtown, Reina said, and show no grouping to any particular neighborhood. There have been homicides in Chinatown, South Park and the southern end of the Historic Core, among other locations.
None of the killings in Downtown are thought to be gang-related. Although gangs are known to be involved in the Skid Row drug trade, Leap said that gangs in general tend to avoid Downtown, in part due to the large police presence in the area.
Downtown is an unusual part of Los Angeles, Leap said, with an “idiosyncratic” crime pattern that can’t be compared to other portions of the city. She said that is in part due to its growing population and economic diversity, with the Central City housing both new luxury residential buildings and the impoverished Skid Row community.
Central Division’s homicide unit consists of four detectives. They have cleared 13 of the 16 homicide cases this year, Hauck said, meaning suspects have been arrested and charged (one suspect, in a murder at 11th and Flower streets in January, was killed in an officer-involved shooting a few blocks away).
Leap said that each death is unique, and without any greater thread or conflict to link them, it is too soon to say if this marks an overall trend in Downtown.
“We also have this narrative that once crime is down, it’s either going to stay down or go up,” Leap said. “We need to wait and see if this is sustained.”
Hauck said that the homicide teams are working to clear the remaining three cases, and hope to have them solved by the end of the year.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2017