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LOS ANGELES -- Even as gang-related homicides have been dropping in the last several years, the proportion of such killings in which race was a factor has increased, Los Angeles County sheriff's officials said Wednesday.
Sheriff's homicide investigators reported that race "played a role" in 16% of the 207 gang-related killings in 2005, rising to 19% of 133 gang slayings last year, said sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore.
In the first six months of this year, 25% of the 56 gang-related slayings involved either blacks killing Latinos or vice versa.
That compares with 13% for the same period last year.
Whitmore said officials examined all gang-related homicides over the last three years, in jurisdictions where the department investigates those crimes, to determine what role, if any, racial hatred played. Whitmore said it is as much an element in the slayings as such other factors as gang clashes, drugs and turf.
Officials could not immediately provide additional details about specific cases.
Whitmore said the numbers appeared to back Sheriff Lee Baca's argument for a broader discussion about the role race plays in gang killings.
"Critics have said race is a major factor in the violence in county and state prisons, and is a problem on school campuses. But they say, 'Baca was wrong to say those factors are at play with gangs on the streets,' " Whitmore said. "The numbers lend credibility to the argument that the racial component be examined along with other factors, including drugs, territory and money, in these crimes."
Los Angeles Police Department officials have disputed that contention, saying race remains a rare factor in gang killings.
A Times examination of slayings in 2007 largely backed Police Chief William J. Bratton's assertion about the racial factor in gang killings.
The Times analyzed the circumstances of 562 Latino and black homicides from 2007 in which the race of the suspects was known, including all LAPD and sheriff's cases, plus those of smaller police agencies such as Long Beach and Inglewood.
The analysis found that nearly 90% of both black and Latino homicide victims had been killed by suspects of their own race.
Last week, Baca wrote in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece that "some of L.A.'s so-called gangs are really no more than loose-knit bands of blacks or Latinos roaming the streets looking for people of the other color to shoot."
In the piece, the sheriff argued that the same racial animosity that was permeating the county jail system was spilling onto the streets of Los Angeles County.
But sheriff's officials said efforts to segregate the races in jail contributed to a decrease in violence behind bars.
In 2006, there were 78 "major inmate disturbances," a term referring to an incident in which the operations of a jail facility are disrupted, requiring a significant show of force.
There may also be resulting injuries to inmates as well as substantial damage.
The next year, after sheriff's officials reorganized the jail facilities, including segregating them by race, such disturbances fell to only 15.
In the first six months of 2008, there have been just four reported incidents.