The City Council, which is wrestling with a tight budget, wants to study whether Long Beach could save money by shutting down its Police Department and hiring sheriff's deputies to patrol citywide.
Council members said they plan to ask the Sheriff's Department to prepare a report estimating the costs of taking over the city's law enforcement duties. Deputies have been patrolling two sections of Long Beach since last November to help relieve the city's understaffed Police Department.
At least six of the nine councilmen said they plan to vote for the study at an upcoming budget hearing.
Several council members have said repeatedly that they want to retain a local police force, but the move for an economic study shows that the council might consider eliminating the department if the price were right.
"I'm prepared to support anyone who wants to gather information," said Councilman Wallace Edgerton, who added that he prefers to keep the city's Police Department. "There would have to be a dramatic difference (in costs) before it became an issue. It pays to have our own Police Department."
Some council members said they have been pleased with the deputies' performance, and contend that the city could save money if it expands the sheriff's coverage to the entire city. The move would eliminate the department's overhead and allow the city to tap into sheriff's services, such as crime labs and communication centers, they said.
Councilman Doug Drummond, who favors replacing police officers with deputies, has estimated that citywide sheriff's patrols could save about $40 million a year.
"Some of my colleagues continually badger me on whether a penny could be saved or not. I'm saying, 'Let's stop speculating and see and take it from there,' " said Drummond, a retired Long Beach police commander.
Sheriff's Department supporters on the council believe that a citywide switch to deputies would reduce crime rates.
During the first three months of the year, crimes against people went up 22.7% in the parts of Long Beach patrolled by the city's police, compared to the same time period last year. But these crimes, which include murders and rapes, decreased by 10.1% in areas covered by deputies, according to Long Beach police reports.
Other councilmen who say they favor a study are Les Robbins, Evan Anderson Braude, Warren Harwood and Jeffrey A. Kellogg. Although both Harwood and Robbins work for the county, they could vote for a study on the issue, according to City Atty. John R. Calhoun. They would not be allowed to participate in the final decision on the deputies, however.
Councilmen Thomas Clark and Clarence Smith strongly oppose the idea, saying they oppose contracting with the Sheriff's Department, regardless of whether it saves the city money.
"I know for a fact already that we can contract out for any service we have and save money, but it's important to have our own," Smith said.
"We have more control over our own department," said Smith, a strong supporter of the Long Beach Citizen Police Complaint Commission, which reviews complaints of brutality and abuse against city police officers but does not have the authority to consider complaints involving deputies.
Clark said: "There's no question that if you are seeking to go to the sheriff's it's a slap in the face (of police officers)."
Councilman Ray Grabinski could not be reached for comment.
Mayor Ernie Kell, who does not have a vote, said he also favors a study. "I would certainly support seeing how much it would cost," Kell said.
Since last November, 43 deputies have been assigned to patrol the north and northeastern sections, about one-fifth of the city, under a four-year contract with the Sheriff's Department.
As recently as last month, a council majority asked the city manager for a plan that would phase out the sheriff's patrols, an indication that there is still strong council support for a local department.
"If the numbers don't jell, it definitely means the demise of the sheriff's deputies. But if they do jell, anything is possible," said Councilman Robbins, a sheriff's deputy whose district is now patrolled by the county. "This is going to be a fiscal decision."
The city's recently unveiled 1991-92 budget calls for $24 million in cuts in police, fire and other local services unless officials approve tax increases.
City Manager James C. Hankla pointed out, however, that a decision on the sheriff's deputies probably would not come in time to affect the budget for the new fiscal year beginning July 1. "Such a study would take the better part of a year. It's not something that is an immediate potential," Hankla said.
Sheriff's Cmdr. John Hammargren, who heads the department's contract law enforcement bureau, said he could not speculate on whether the city would save money by switching to citywide patrols by deputies.