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

At least so far, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck has been able to operate under these budget constraints without seeing the rise in crime one might have expected.  Part I (i.e., serious) crime in the city is down more than seven percent from last year, and every one of the LAPD’s 21 patrol stations has seen at least a modest decrease.  Given these figures, Mayor Villaraigosa and the city council may assume they can afford to skimp on the LAPD’s budget without paying too high a political price.

But the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the labor union that represents rank-and-file officers (and of which I am a member), has proposed that the city refrain from hiring new officers, and that the resulting savings be devoted to resuming the payment of cash overtime.  This, the League maintains, would have the effect of immediately returning to the field those hundreds of officers who would otherwise remain idled due to forced days off.  In an op-ed piece published in the Los Angeles Times on Dec. 2, League President Paul Weber makes the case that the taxpayers of Los Angeles have been swindled, taken in by a bait-and-switch scheme that promised more cops on the streets but failed to deliver.  Yes, the officers were hired, but what good are more police officers if so many of them are diverted into clerical and other non-patrol duties or are forced to stay home because they’ve racked up too much overtime?

For their part, Chief Beck and Mayor Villaraigosa counter that a complete freeze on hiring police officers would have serious consequences for the LAPD in the future.  Experience has shown that when the apparatus of recruiting, hiring, and training new police officers is shut down for any appreciable period, it becomes a formidable task to get it up and running again when economic conditions improve.

And there may be a reckoning ahead.  Overall crime may be down in Los Angeles, but seven of the city’s patrol areas have seen increases in homicides this year, and 12 have seen increases in the number of shooting victims.  City-wide, the number of shooting victims is up more than five percent over last year.  These are the crimes that frighten residents most and motivate them to pick up the phone and hector their local police captain or city councilman with questions about what they intend to do about all this bloodshed.

But there may not be much they can do if an underfunded LAPD is faced with the sort of crime figures that were common a few years ago.  In 2001, for example, there were 484 Part I crimes in Los Angeles for every 10,000 in population.  That number has fallen steadily since, and in 2009 the figure was just 242, exactly half of what it was only eight years before.

That dramatic drop in crime was brought about through a concerted effort on the part of city leaders to fund and maintain a police department capable of confronting what in many parts of Los Angeles was an unchecked criminal subculture, the members of which reveled in terrorizing their law-abiding neighbors.  That criminal subculture still exists today, though it’s impact has been largely diminished through the efforts of the men and women of the LAPD.

The fight against crime is like a tug-of-war, where even a slight shift in momentum can turn winners into losers.  For ten years now the momentum has been on the LAPD’s side, but the city’s bleak financial picture may change that.  You won’t want to live or visit here if it does.