Central Valley Noir: California's Changing Geography of Murder

Phillip Marlowe, Joe Friday, pack your bags. Your talents are needed elsewhere. The City of Angels is starting to live up to its namesake but the same cannot be said of the state’s agricultural communities.

Homicide has long been associated with the inner city, the worst crime suffered disproportionately by those who fare the worst. But the annual report on homicide released this month by the California Attorney General reveals that counties traditionally dominated by agriculture have the highest rates. Monterey, Merced, San Joaquin and Kern counties top the list where the largest city to be found is Bakersfield with under 350,000 residents. In fact, the counties that hold the state’s four largest cities, Los Angeles, San Jose, San Diego and San Francisco, are not even in the top ten. Alameda, Fresno and Contra Costa are the only arguably urban-dominated counties to be in the top ten and including Fresno on this list is a stretch.

Why is this the case? The city of Salinas in Monterey County has a horrible gang problem as does Fresno. Although most criminologists do not link murder to a poor economy, the Central Valley has suffered tremendously in recent years, causing one observer to call it “California’s Detroit .” Los Angeles, which had the state’s second highest murder rate in 2001, saw a precipitous drop in violent crime in the last decade under LAPD Chief Bill Bratton. It’s 2010 murder rate (5.9 homicides per 100,000 residents) was nearly half of the rate in 2001 (11).

Another eye-popper in the report was the incidence of homicide in the Hispanic community: Hispanics comprised nearly 45 percent of the state’s homicide victims and nearly 49 percent of those arrested for the crime (27 percent of victims were black and 18 percent were white for comparison).

Other interesting highlights of the report:

• The homicide rate went down for the fifth year in the row to a rate of 4.7 homicides per 100,000 residents – the lowest rate since 1966. Monterey and Merced both had rates of 10.
• Thirty-six percent of all homicides were gang-related. Another thirty-six percent occurred as a result of an argument.
• Whites who murder and are murdered tend to be older than other ethnic groups: 40 percent of white arrestees were age 40 or over, and 52 percent of white murder victims were over 40.
• For cases in which the cause of murder is known, 71 percent of homicides involve a firearm.