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The Need for More Police

February 18, 1988

The City of Los Angeles now has two sets of figures on how long it takes its police officers to answer a call for help. The city can waste precious days and weeks fighting over which version is right. Or its people and its politicians can do something about the fact that as of today they need at least 650 more officers to deal with crime in all parts of the city. Of the two courses, only facing up to the need for a bigger force makes sense.

Considering the changes in the city in the last 10 years, the citizens of Los Angeles have had a run of pretty good luck and a virtual free ride when it has come to paying the costs of dealing with crime. Some have been luckier than others. In the parts of the city where drugs and poverty are common, hundreds of people have paid for the changing nature of crime with their lives.

When Proposition l3 crippled the ability of the average local government in California to meet the costs of change, there were just under 7,000 uniformed officers in the Los Angeles Police Department. The number actually dropped before it began a slow climb toward today's force of 7,350 officers. Another 150 probably will be authorized to start training under the next city budget that will take effect July 1. That is an abysmally small increase compared to the increase in population--and to the even greater and more shocking increase in crime and gang activity during that time. Aggravated assaults more than doubled, and robberies went up 40%.

Yet even the relatively small increase in the number of uniformed officers had to be scraped out of other parts of the city budget, mainly by Mayor Tom Bradley and Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky. Taxpayers have twice rejected proposals to make the kinds of increases that are necessary to provide adequate police protection for all 3 million people in the 435 square miles of Los Angeles.

One set of figures concerning police response times comes from the Public Administration Service, based on information that the Virginia think tank gathered between July, 1986, and June, 1987. The individual response times vary widely, but over that period the average for the South bureau was 12.8 minutes and for the Valley bureau 11.4 minutes.

The other set of figures comes from Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, who said that response times for last month ran closer to from just over 7 minutes in one bureau to just under 9 minutes in another. He said that changes in dispatching procedures and keeping more patrol cars on the street accounted for the improvement.

The past can be a good teacher, assuming that Gates' vastly improved statistics were based on changes in the way the department does things--because the old ways didn't work. What the people and the politicians of Los Angeles should focus on now is improving response times over the long haul to meet the 7-minute average that the think tank's report recommends.

Even if the City Council approved going to a police force of 8,000 today, training hundreds of new recruits would take years.

During that time, as we see it, the Police Department will have no more important task than to demonstrate that the city's poor neighborhoods and wealthy neighborhoods get equal protection. Any reductions in response time must be made across the board.

The South-Central Organizing Committee and the United Neighborhoods Organization have contended for years that the eastern and southern sections of Los Angeles have not had their fair share of police protection but have bided their time recently, waiting for the deployment report. The report is here. So is the time for acting on it.

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