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Petition Drive Seeks 240 More Police in 3 Years : Law enforcement: Unlike two similar ballot measures that failed in recent years, this proposal carries no new taxes.

August 05, 1993|ROXANA KOPETMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — Saying that the Long Beach Police Department remains critically understaffed, a group of residents plans to kick off a petition drive this weekend for a ballot measure to increase the number of police officers.

Led by eastside resident Bill Pearl, Citizens for Safer Long Beach is pushing for the city to add about 240 officers over the next three years and maintain current firefighter and paramedic services--without increasing taxes.

The measure, which needs 27,223 voter signatures to be placed on next April's ballot, calls for a systematic increase of police officers through 1996 and says the city should pay for the hires from its general fund.

"The argument they can't afford it is not true. They can't afford not to do it," said Pearl, who also is president of the East Long Beach Homeowners Assn.

Two similar ballot measures have failed in recent years. But those measures called for new taxes to pay for more officers.

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The proposed ballot measure would require a two-thirds vote of the City Council or a vote of the people to increase or create any type of fee.

This proposal, if passed, would force city officials to go back to an already lean budget and look for more places to trim.

"It could devastate the city," Councilman Alan S. Lowenthal said. "It would put a tremendous burden at the expense of all types of programs. . . . I don't think you can have a city without parks and arts and clean beaches."

City Councilman Evan Anderson Braude said such a measure would create havoc.

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But even opponents such as Braude said the measure has a good chance of passing if proponents collect enough signatures to put it on the ballot.

When the council adopted its current budget in late June, it approved a number of fee increases and about $1.8 million in spending cuts in every city department except police. The council approved hiring 50 new officers at a cost of $4 million annually. At the time, neighborhood leaders, including Pearl, pleaded with the council to add 300 officers to the 741-member Police Department.

Several council members fought to hire 100 officers. One, Vice Mayor Jeffrey A. Kellogg, said the petition drive is a result of the council's failure to hire more officers.

"The citizens of Long Beach are taking into their own hands what the majority of the City Council won't do," he said.

Councilman Les Robbins agreed that the council has not done enough to improve public safety.

"The reality is that we have some neighborhoods in Long Beach where it's dangerous to go out at night," said Robbins, who pledged his support for the proposed ballot measure.

Compared to the late 1980s, when crime sharply increased throughout the city, crime has decreased in recent years, according to the Police Department. In the first six months of this year, for example, overall crime went down by 5.3% compared to the first six months of last year, according to statistics released this week.

But despite assurances from the Police Department, many residents continue to feel the city is an unsafe place to live and work.

"Statistics can say whatever they want. If you ask the citizens of Long Beach if the city is safe, they will overwhelmingly say no," Kellogg said.

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Long Beach is budgeted for 791 officers, or about 1.8 officers per 1,000 residents. By comparison, Los Angeles has 2.1 officers per 1,000 residents and officials there are pushing to increase that ratio to 3 to 1,000.

"Long Beach is one of the most under-policed cities in the country," Pearl said.

Under the proposal, Long Beach would increase its department each year until it reaches a ratio of 2.35 officers per 1,000 residents by the end of 1996.

Every 100 new officers costs $7 million to $9 million a year, Pearl said. "But the issue here is not cost," Pearl said. "This initiative will help pay for itself. Jobs will return, consumers will return to the stores and businesses will return."

Dan Cangro, a leader from the Wrigley neighborhood, said the group plans to hire professionals to collect signatures. If none are hired by this weekend, about 25 volunteers will collect them, Cangro said. Neither Pearl nor Cangro would say how much they expect to spend or whether the group has any financial backing.

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