Stepping up its campaign for a raise by attempting to frighten the public, the Los Angeles police union began posting billboards across the city Tuesday that show a carjacking in progress and encourage residents to support officers in their fight for a new contract.
Scattered from the San Fernando Valley to South Los Angeles, the union-sponsored billboards show a woman being robbed at gunpoint outside her car by a shadowy figure. They say: "Warning: This Can Be You Without the Police Dept."
The shock ads, 22 in all, are designed to dramatically illustrate the indispensable nature of the police and swing public opinion toward the Police Protective League. But they also represent a risk because they may alienate a crime-weary public and antagonize city officials who hold the Police Department's purse strings.
"It's unfortunate that the Police Protective League continues to try public relations stunts that I believe will erode public support for their position, rather than strengthen it," Mayor Richard Riordan said in a statement.
The mastermind of the campaign is one of Riordan's former aides, Geoffrey Garfield. A former assistant deputy mayor for public safety, Garfield became the union's communications director last month after he was asked to leave by Riordan.
"Going into this, we knew there would be criticism," Garfield said. "But we know we're right, and we've put on our armor and we're going to play tough. Now that the billboards are in the city's face, we all have to deal with this."
The union's next escalation--a videotape that will highlight the city's crime problem--is scheduled to go out to tourism officials across the world early next month if the contract dispute is not settled, union leaders said.
Local tourism officials, barraged by calls from the media, were grimacing.
"The world out there tends to forget this is a labor dispute," said Michael Collins, senior vice president of the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau. "They think police, Los Angeles, trouble. That can do serious damage."
Collins said there has been no overwhelming reaction to a brochure that the union sent out to tourism officials earlier in the month that used crime statistics to press the officers' case for a new contract. But as the dispute heats up, he said, the city's image may be on the line.
The union had considered holding off on the billboards, which union officials said cost $19,000.
During a break in the negotiations, Riordan announced last week that he intended to give officers with a raise, which sources said was in the 6% range over two years. But Riordan also called for changes in work rules that the union vehemently opposes.
Riordan is proposing, among other things, that the LAPD eliminate distinctions among detectives, who are divided into three classifications. That would allow some detectives to be sent back to patrol duties, a move that would help Riordan put more officers on the streets.
Unhappy with Riordan's proposals, union leaders have said they will settle for nothing less than the 9% raise over three years offered to city utility workers last fall. Negotiations are scheduled to resume on Friday.
At a news conference across the street from one of the billboards near Echo Park, Danny Staggs, president of the union, said the mayor's proposed changes in LAPD job classifications would set back the negotiating process at least another six months. The changes, he argued, would unfairly affect women and minorities by reducing their opportunities for advancement.
The police union says it does not enjoy the campaign but believes it has no other choice. Police officers are forbidden to strike, and a sickout that the officers held last fall was declared illegal by a judge.
"These billboards again demonstrate that the police officers of this city have been left with few options to resolve their dispute regarding the lengthy negotiations, now approaching two years," Staggs said.
Among City Council members, a majority of whom must approve whatever agreement is reached at the negotiating table, sentiment over the union's tactics has ranged from outrage to sympathy.
Councilmen Joel Wachs and Rudy Svorinich Jr. have said they understand the officers' frustrations and want them to get a solid contract soon. But Councilman Marvin Braude said the union is hurting itself.
"This is irresponsible," said Braude, chairman of the Public Safety Committee. "I think we have to work together. Just dumping on the city of Los Angeles in this way harms everybody."
The method the union is employing struck many as ironic, because police officers are typically defensive about the job they do fighting crime. In this case, the police are advertising the unsafe nature of the city's streets.
"I believe most of the officers do not support this tactic," Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky said. "This is a self-destructive, self-defeating strategy."