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.

The most unfortunate side effect of the LAPD’s turmoil during those years was the reversal of what had been a downward trend in crime. After peaking in the mid-1980s, crime in Los Angeles declined more or less steadily until 1999, by which time Chief Parks and his policies had thoroughly ravaged the department. It wasn’t until Parks was sacked that crime resumed the downward trend that continues to this day. Overall crime in the city remains at historically low levels: Part I (i.e., serious) crime in 2010 was just 272.9 per 10,000 residents, a figure that hasn’t been seen in Los Angeles since the early 1950s. By way of comparison, the figure hovered near 1,000 throughout the 1980s and remained above 500 through most of the 1990s.

I hasten to point out that when it comes to driving down officer morale, Charlie Beck on his worst day couldn’t come within a hundred miles of Bernard Parks, who treated his officers like so many bugs on the sidewalk. But there will nonetheless be a price to be paid if LAPD officers are treated less than fairly, and it won’t be paid by just the officers themselves.

So far, at least, the city’s misplaced priorities haven’t resulted in higher crime. But the downward trend can’t continue forever, especially when the city, in its shortsighted effort to save money, idles more than 500 officers every day rather than pay them for the overtime they’ve worked. Perhaps worse, hundreds of other officers are spending their workdays in positions ordinarily staffed by lower-paid civilian workers, this owing to an ongoing citywide hiring freeze. Though the city has maintained the police department at just under 10,000 officers, the figure is illusory given the number of officers forced to take time off or work behind a desk.

And despite the generally sunny picture on crime in Los Angeles, there are real but so far little-noticed consequences to these police staffing policies.  There are 21 patrol divisions within the city, each with its own station and complement of officers. So far this year, six of these divisions have seen increases in homicides and five have seen increases in overall violent crime. Southeast Division, in South Central L.A., had seen 24 murders as of June 11, a 14-percent increase over a year ago and a 50-percent increase over the same period in 2009. If you were a relative of one of those murder victims, how would you feel knowing that the detective assigned to investigate the crime is sitting at home because there is no money to pay him?

If the increase in violent crime remains confined to the city’s poorer neighborhoods, there will be little political impetus for devoting resources to combat it. In making the spending choices they have, the mayor and the city council have in effect made it clear they are content with crime remaining at its current level or even rising a bit, a disturbing thought for those living in L.A.’s rougher neighborhoods.

LAPD officers have already borne their share of the city’s financial difficulties, with many seeing their pay go down by 20 percent or more with the loss of overtime. They have forgone raises for years even as other city workers saw their salaries go up during the same period. They already contribute 9 percent of their salaries to their pensions and pay for a portion of their health benefits. Further sacrifices may indeed be in order given the gravity of city’s financial troubles, but the future of Los Angeles depends on the LAPD’s ability to compete with other departments in the recruitment and retention of police officers. The police union has been and remains willing to make reasonable concessions so as to help the city through hard times, but if Chief Beck and city leaders expect their police officers to stay motivated in fighting crime, if they expect the city to be safe and livable in five or ten or twenty years, there has to be a carrot at the end of the stick they’re giving us.