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LAPD Attrition May Pit Mayor Against Chief

January 21, 1996|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A newly intensified battle over Los Angeles Police Department attrition is being quietly waged at City Hall, where it threatens to pit Mayor Richard Riordan and Police Chief Willie L. Williams in a new round of conflict while providing fodder for what could be a bitter standoff over the city's police contract later this year.

According to sources familiar with the issue, Riordan staffers, top LAPD officials and leaders of the city's police union have split over how serious the attrition problem is and what needs to be done about it. Although the internal dispute has eluded public notice so far, some of the participants say tensions are building, with Riordan aides and LAPD officials staking out opposing views. The city's police union, meanwhile, is attempting to use the issue as an argument for pay hikes.

"The rank and file is upset," said Cliff Ruff, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the labor organization that represents police officers. "They're expecting to be treated fairly. If they're not, there will be trouble."

The debate has played out in recent weeks during a series of closed-door meetings among top city officials. At its core is a pair of questions: Why are police officers leaving the LAPD for jobs in other cities, and what, if anything, can be done to stop them?

Yet beneath those questions are a host of politically charged theories being hashed out by the city's Attrition Task Force. That high-level group of city officials and business and community leaders was created to study the tide of departing cops, who are leaving at a rate of nearly 500 per year.

Most of those are retirements, which the city has little power to control, and some are officers who have been fired, injured or even killed. But 147 cops with less than 10 years on the job resigned their LAPD positions in 1994. Many went on to other jobs in law enforcement. Each departed with training and expertise paid for by Los Angeles taxpayers, training that their new employers got for free.

Led by Police Commissioner Art Mattox, the mayor and City Council last week attempted to stem the flow: Council members approved a motion that would require Los Angeles to be reimbursed whenever an officer with less than five years training left to join another Police Department. Few think that will solve the attrition problem, but almost all agree it will provide some respite.

Still, the larger issue remains: How can the LAPD hold onto its talent in the face of plummeting morale and dissatisfaction with wages and benefits? And how much is it worth to the city to hold onto those cops?

*

For months, Riordan administration officials fretted about the implications of attrition, which also threatens to undermine the mayor's campaign promise of expanding the LAPD by 3,000 officers in four years. But now, emboldened by new insights into the problem and faced with proposals that could cost tens of millions of dollars to fix it, the administration is shifting ground. Riordan aides are now arguing that attrition may not be as serious as it once appeared and saying that better LAPD leadership might go a long way toward solving it.

In recent meetings, sources say Riordan aides have stressed that a large number of LAPD officers express dissatisfaction with the leadership in the Police Department, including Williams. The implication: Attrition might be stemmed at little public expense by better leadership.

In fact, some observers say strong, focused leadership might even reduce some of the pressure for increased salaries because low morale and demand for pay hikes often are signs of other frustrations. Restore the LAPD's luster, the argument goes, and fewer officers will leave in search of higher salaries; let the department languish, and angry officers will continue to demand pay hikes.

Advancing that argument serves two purposes for Riordan:

* First, sources close to the mayor say there is not enough money for a comprehensive salary and pension overhaul and that the police union is falsely raising expectations of a major increase. According to City Hall sources, some widely discussed changes to the pension system could cost as much as $100 million, far more than Riordan is willing to spend, especially if the only gain would be halting the departures of a few dozen officers a year.

* Second, the administration is unhappy with Williams' performance on a number of levels. Focusing on leadership issues in this area reinforces Riordan administration's general criticisms of the chief while linking those criticisms specifically to attrition.

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