New L.A. Budget Is Ushering Cops, Firemen Out the Door

What will Los Angeles look like in five years? In ten or twenty? The answers may depend on some crucial decisions to be made at City Hall this month.

Like many American cities, Los Angeles is struggling with the effects of prolonged recession, and civic priorities are being reassessed with an eye toward declining tax revenues. Earlier this month, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the city council approved a municipal budget that leaves a $41-million hole in the LAPD’s already reduced funding, and they have offered Chief Charlie Beck no guidance on how they expect him to close it. Attention is now focused on the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the labor union that represents rank-and-file officers. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the LAPPL.)  Their current contract expires at the end of this month, and there is pressure being exerted on the officers to make concessions that will allow the city to save money.

But officers are asking how much more will they be expected to give up while receiving nothing in return. The city’s proposal to the LAPD, at least insofar as what’s been presented to date, is all stick and no carrot. And as one might expect, the cops are saying, “No, thanks.”

There have been no raises for LAPD officers in three years, this owing to concessions already made during the last round of contract negotiations. And among other accommodations made at that time, officers agreed to forgo cash payment for overtime in exchange for compensatory time off. But as a condition of that concession, the city agreed to return to the prior system of cash payment at the end of this month. They are now asking for an extension of the current overtime system, but they have not incorporated this request into an overall labor agreement to be presented to officers for ratification.

Last week the city council jabbed another thumb into the eyes of L.A.’s police officers and firefighters by voting to cap retiree health benefits at current levels, removing them from the collective bargaining process where they’ve traditionally been set. It’s interesting to note that the council deviated from its customary practice in that neither the public nor the LAPPL were provided with a copy of the new ordinance or the opportunity to comment on it until after it was passed, suggesting that they were not acting entirely above board. Be that as it may, it’s their responsibility to make decisions on how the public’s money is spent, and though such a move may make financial sense in the short term, one entirely predictable effect has been a surge of police officers and firefighters retiring sooner than they otherwise would so as to beat the July 15 deadline when the new cap takes effect. Will all those cops and firefighters and their accumulated experience be missed? Only time will tell but history suggests they will be.

And now the city is turning up the pressure even further. Chief Beck has told hundreds of officers in specialized assignments to expect transfers to patrol if an agreement on overtime isn’t reached soon. In threatening large numbers of officers with reassignment, Beck is transparently hoping to divide the LAPPL’s members and railroad them into accepting a raw deal. It’s a cynical ploy that isn’t going over well, and I fear it may lead to a level of friction between cops and management we haven’t seen in a long time.

From 1997 to 2002, the chief of the LAPD was Bernard Parks, a man well known for his autocratic, heavy-handed management style. In a move that was hailed throughout the department, Parks was let go at the end of his five-year contract, making way for the civic revival that accompanied William Bratton’s appointment to the post. The department had suffered badly during Parks’s tenure, losing hundreds of officers who went off to find better working conditions in other departments.