The Thin Blue Line Vs. Deepening Red Ink in L.A.

Call it the case of the disappearing police officers.  While the number of Los Angeles Police Department officers has grown over these past few years, the city’s residents are today seeing fewer of them on the streets.  And in the new year they’ll see even fewer.  It’s the kind of mystery that will make you want to call the cops.

Los Angeles has long been known as one of the most under-policed cities in the country.  According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report for 2009, the LAPD had 2.59 officers per 1,000 in population last year.  That number may seem meaningless until one puts it alongside the figures for two comparable cities: New York had 4.17 officers per 1,000 residents, and Chicago had 4.59.  In 2006, the Los Angeles city council approved an increase in residential trash fees, the revenue from which was to be devoted to expanding the police department.

And while the LAPD has indeed expanded, with the number of officers increasing from just under 9,400 in 2006 to almost 10,000 today, on any given day there are fewer of them working the streets.  And soon, owing to a set of circumstances only a government bureaucrat can understand, there will be even fewer.

So what’s going on?  Los Angeles, like most American cities, is coping with the effects of the sluggish economy, with tax revenues on the decline even as demand for public services continues to grow.  Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa puts the current city deficit at $485 million, and one of the methods he has chosen to cope with it is a freeze on most hiring in the municipal workforce.  The LAPD has been exempted from the freeze except as it relates to civilian employees such as record clerks and jailers, on whom the department’s police officers depend to keep the machinery running.

But as the department’s civilian workforce shrinks, police officers are being removed from field duties and called on to do tasks ordinarily performed by these now-absent civilians.  Early next year, for example, nearly 100 sworn officers will be working the LAPD’s Metropolitan Detention Center, a new jail that will take the place of the one in Parker Center, the decrepit and all but vacated former headquarters building.  For reasons known only to them and God, the people entrusted to make such decisions have determined it is somehow more cost-efficient to supplement the jail’s staff with police officers than to hire and train a sufficient number of jailers.

Making matters worse is the LAPD’s attempt to limit overtime worked by police officers.  Every cop knows that any arrest made within three hours of his scheduled end-of-watch is going to result in overtime, and if he works any shift other than day watch, it’s going to be followed by at least one court appearance for which he will also be owed overtime.  In years past the city attempted to compensate as much overtime as it could in cash rather than time off, thus leaving as many cops as possible on the streets.  Today, cash overtime is all but a memory, so as officers accumulate overtime in excess of 250 hours, they are ordered to take as much time off as required to bring their balance below that level.  The result is that on any given day, hundreds of officers are on unscheduled days off.  And when you consider that in a typical month, fewer than 3,000 of the nearly 10,000 officers on the LAPD roster are deployed in patrol assignments, you are left with a pretty meager force for a city of 4 million people spread over 469 square miles.