CUDAHY — Officials fear that the thin blue line protecting this city has grown a little too thin.
The Cudahy City Council on Tuesday will consider whether to break its contract for police services from neighboring Bell and sign up for coverage by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department in an effort to put more patrol units on the street.
Bell officials have presented a counterproposal that lists reasons why they believe Cudahy should keep its contract. Cudahy has paid Bell to provide police services for 15 years. But a clause in the contract allows Cudahy to pull out if it gives 90 days notice.
John Bramble, Bell's chief administrative officer, said layoffs would be a virtual certainty if Cudahy cancels its police contract. The city contributes 29% of the Police Department's total budget.
Cudahy City Manager Gerald Caton said his recommendation is based on simple economics: the sheriff appears to offer more substantial, responsive service at a slightly higher cost.
While lauding the quality and dedication of the city's police force, Caton said, "it's just that we've seen an upswing in crime and not a corresponding increase in (the number of) officers. Three years ago, I seldom received a complaint about street drug sales and now it's a very common complaint."
The Sheriff's Department proposes to staff Cudahy with two patrol cars around the clock, and would add a third car during a single busy shift.
The current contract with Bell provides for a single around-the-clock police unit, with help from two other units that spend about 40% of their time in Cudahy, according to the sheriff's analysis.
Overall, the Sheriff's Department proposes that deputies work a total of 472 hours a week in the city, compared to 418 a week in the present contract arrangement with Bell. The price tag for sheriff's coverage would be $1.6 million a year, which is $118,174 more than the city is now paying. That would amount to increased costs of nearly 8%, but patrol time would increase almost 13%, the report concludes.
The Sheriff's Department patrolled Cudahy from the city's incorporation in 1960 until city officials signed an agreement with neighboring Bell 15 years ago, becoming the only city in the county to receive its police services from another municipality. Ironically, Cudahy officials were attempting to cut costs when they signed the contract with Bell for police services, Caton said.
Bell, which covers 2.8 square miles, has a population of about 28,400. Its neighbor to the south, Cudahy, covers 1.1 square miles and has a population of about 20,600.
Cudahy officials suggested two years ago that the two cities form a joint police agency, but Bell officials refused. Cudahy would have paid 50% of the costs and would have shared liability. A governing board of representatives from both cities would have overseen the department and decided how to divide services.
Cudahy officials made the proposal because "we wanted to have more control of the department," according to Caton. He said the Police Department, which is under direct control of the Bell City Council, is more responsive to crime problems in Bell than in Cudahy.
The Cudahy City Council appears to favor switching to a contract with the Sheriff's Department. Even the strongest defender of the current arrangement, Councilman Bill Colon, said he has an open mind on the issue and noted that his colleagues are "pretty adamant" about wanting the sheriff.
"They're both good outfits," he said.
Colon added, however, that the Bell-Cudahy officers "know the people, they know the area, they have a better understanding of the problems." He said that the extra money for a sheriff's contract might be better spent on beefing up patrols by Bell-Cudahy police.
Cudahy Councilman Joseph Fregeau said he favors the change because of the need for better police coverage. "I have nothing against the Bell police. The question is, what is best for Cudahy?" he explained.
Bell City Councilman George W. Cole said Cudahy would receive less responsive service from the sheriff. Since the sheriff's patrol would be based in its East Los Angeles station, a patrol unit might be taken out of service for an hour or more to take a prisoner to jail. "Our officers know the area, the boundaries between the two cities," Cole said. "It makes more sense logistically to have one department serving both cities."
Bramble said the present arrangement benefits both cities because they already share a school system and longtime officers that know both cities.
He said the Police Department has a plan to curtail services if Cudahy decides to cancel its contract, but he declined to give details.