L.A. Cops Hindered by Ridiculous Overtime Rules

There is a remarkable documentary series on the A&E television network called The First 48. Each episode follows a team of homicide detectives from the moment they are summoned to a murder scene and for the ensuing 48 hours. As each installment in the series opens, the viewer is reminded of this truism of murder investigations: if no solid leads are developed within those first two days following the killing, the chances of ever solving the crime are cut in half.

As you watch the series you soon realize that homicide detectives very often go without sleep, sometimes even for days. They process crime scenes, examine evidence, and track down and interview witnesses and suspects, most of whom are revealed to be, at least initially, less than forthright in their responses to questioning. On an episode I watched recently, for example, detectives in Louisville investigated a shooting in which a man was killed and two others, including a 14-year-old boy, were wounded by someone who opened fire on a house with an assault rifle. The victims were struck as they lay in bed asleep.

Through the detectives’ dogged persistence during that initial 48-hour period, they identified and arrested a suspect, then recovered the apparent murder weapon in the trunk of one of his cars. As most of them do, the episode closed with the admonishment that although the suspect had been charged, he was innocent until proven guilty. To which most viewers probably said, “Yeah, right.”

It is that kind of perseverance that is the hallmark of homicide detectives, a trait that becomes apparent as you watch them at work in Louisville, Dallas, Miami, and several other cities across the country. Los Angeles is not one of those cities, but if it were, you might see a scenario similar to the following:

LAPD detectives are called to the scene of a murder at two in the morning. They find no one at the crime scene who admits to having witnessed the murder, but there are several people they believe to be withholding information. Through skillful and persistent interviewing of these reluctant witnesses, they come up with a first name and a description of a likely suspect. After many hours of running down dead ends, the detectives at last identify a suspect and determine that evidence at the murder scene links him to the crime. They obtain an arrest warrant for him, and they are at his front door poised to make the grab when a detective’s cell phone rings.

The caller is their lieutenant, who in no uncertain terms orders them not to make the arrest and to return at once to the police station. When they inquire as to the reason for this asinine instruction, they are informed that they have exceeded their overtime allotment for the month and, as the city is facing a dire financial picture, they should go home and come back tomorrow to make the arrest during their normal duty hours. Or, even more incredibly, they might be told to take a week or two off so as to lower their total of accrued compensatory time and reduce the attendant financial burdens to the city’s budget.

That would make for some pretty sorry television, wouldn’t it?  Viewers and sponsors alike would be switching to Dancing With the Stars in droves.  As it happens, it makes for some pretty sorry police work, too, but it is nonetheless only a slightly exaggerated picture of current conditions in the Los Angeles Police Department.

On Monday, the Los Angeles Times reported on the sorry state of the LAPD budget, illustrating it through the case of Detective Nate Kouri, described in the article as “one of the LAPD’s most productive homicide investigators.” In January, Kouri was ordered to stop working for six weeks in order to bring his accrued overtime down to an acceptable level and to prevent him from adding to it as he picked up new cases. Kouri, assigned to South Bureau Homicide, investigates murders that occur in the Southeast Division, in South Central Los Angeles, one of the city’s most violence-plagued areas. As of April 10, there had been 14 homicides reported in Southeast this year, placing it second among the LAPD’s 21 patrol divisions. Nine of those 14 murders remain unsolved, due in no small part to the fact that the 11 detectives assigned to work them were ordered to take off 700 hours in February alone, a month when they picked up five new killings.

“That is horrible compared to our typical [clearance] rates,” Det. Sal LaBarbera, the supervisor for the Southeast homicide squad, told Times writer Joel Rubin. “All of those cases are solvable.  None of them are mysteries. A few of them would likely already be solved, if I could just let my guys loose to work.”

LAPD officers and detectives typically work ten- and twelve-hour watches, and until recently, most were compensated in cash when they worked beyond their normal hours or appeared in court while off duty. But the decline in tax revenue that has accompanied the recession has necessitated giving officers compensatory time off instead. Sadly, the habits of the city’s criminals are less circumscribed by such fiscal considerations, and they have shown little inclination to cooperate in municipal efforts to save money.

They insist, for example, on committing crimes at such hours that require patrol officers and detectives to work late in order to investigate them. And when they are arrested, they seldom have the decency to surrender in the first hours of a given watch, thereby resulting in police overtime to book them into jail and process the reams of required paperwork.

And, as officers build up overtime, it doesn’t take long before they are required to take time off. Officers are allowed to bank up to 400 hours, but terms of their current contract allow commanders to order anyone whose overtime balance exceeds 250 hours to take as many days off as required to bring it to down to that level.  And of course it is those officers and detectives who are most effective in reducing crime -- those who make the most arrests and the most court appearances -- who accumulate the most overtime, so their absence from the streets is felt all the more strongly. And, owing to a hiring freeze in effect for over a year, nearly a quarter of the LAPD’s 4,000 civilian positions are vacant, so police officers are often pulled from field duty to fill the jobs ordinarily performed by those missing civilians.

The latest crime and arrest figures portend a grim future for Los Angeles. Though crime has continued the decline that began back in 2002 (Part I crime is down 8.5 percent this year), the number of murders in the city has ticked up for the first time since 2004, and this is before the summer months, when violent crime is usually at its highest. So far this year, seven of the LAPD’s 21 patrol divisions have seen increases in their homicides, with Newton and 77th Street Divisions, in South Central L.A., up a dismaying 87 and 66 percent, respectively.

Even more ominous are the arrest numbers. Citywide, arrests are down 8.5 percent this year, with only seven patrol divisions posting increases. Of the four divisions with the highest number of homicides, all have seen a dramatic fall in arrests in 2010.  And the LAPD’s gang details, which bear the responsibility of monitoring and deterring the city’s most violent street criminals, have made 28 percent fewer arrests this year when compared to the same period in 2009. When the city’s gangsters are allowed to go unchecked like this, a rise in crime is all but inevitable.

Regrettably, no one in city government seems to have an answer to this, and new LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has been handed a festering mess. Like the state of California, whose financial outlook is every bit as bleak, Los Angeles has long been governed by fiscal incompetents. One could wander through City Hall for days without encountering a single individual whose intelligence or financial acumen would inspire faith in the city’s future. Unless and until this changes, it appears that Los Angeles may be in the initial stages of a Detroit-like dystopian death spiral, with anyone with the means to flee the city doing so, leaving behind a shrinking tax base even as demand for police and other municipal services increase.

In 1992 there were 1,097 murders reported in Los Angeles, the highest total ever. The number has fallen more or less steadily since. Until now. There were 314 murders reported in 2009, but if the city doesn’t get its fiscal house in order and find a way to keep the LAPD in business, even 1992 may someday be remembered as the good old days.