"In three years, it's going to be 75% of the budget. Is that enough? Why don't we just make it 90%?" Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg challenged her colleagues Wednesday. "Why don't we just close everything else down and make the city about just police and fire? That's hogwash, but that's where we're headed."
Council members Richard Alatorre and Mike Feuer, who sponsored the tax proposal, emphasized fiscal responsibility.
"The easy thing for the council to have done from the outset would have been to buy into the mayor's budget," Feuer said. "There's one major difference between this approach [and the mayor's]. And that major difference is we're being honest with the voters about what it takes to get it done."
At the Police Department on Wednesday, officials welcomed the council's interest in expanding the LAPD but declined to comment on the notion of a new tax until there are more specifics.
But some previous veterans of LAPD expansion efforts derided the council vote as an ill-advised attempt to pass the buck. One high-ranking LAPD official said a ballot measure would be doomed to failure, and a former chief accused the council of sidestepping its obligations.
"This is simply a cop-out by the council. They don't want to be held accountable for saying no," said Daryl F. Gates, who ran the LAPD from 1978 to 1992 and in 1981 tried unsuccessfully to win voters' approval for a tax that would have paid to expand the department to 8,500 officers. Gates, who has previously criticized the current LAPD expansion as too much too quickly, said he was upset to see the council change course on trimming the rate of growth.
"We're running on empty," Gates said of the city leadership. "I've never seen such ineptness in my years."
Riordan inherited a department of 7,600 officers when he came to City Hall in 1993. The LAPD now has about 8,900 in the force, including 600 in the Police Academy.
But the LAPD remains proportionally far smaller than other big-city forces. With fewer miles to patrol and just over twice the population, New York has 38,800 officers. Chicago, a city with slightly fewer residents than Los Angeles, has a police force of 13,250.
The LAPD's smaller numbers reflect historical budgeting priorities and approaches to law enforcement. Although it recently has moved toward more community policing, the LAPD in the 1970s and 1980s emphasized quick response, relying mostly on officers in cars instead of foot beats or other programs that require a higher concentration of officers.
Despite politicians' exhortations about the importance of public safety, and polls showing that it is residents' top priority, voters have repeatedly refused to shell out extra cash to support LAPD. The exception came in 1989, with the passage of a $176-million bond measure that promised 32 new or expanded facilities; after its adoption, officials concluded that the money could only fund 10 projects.
Most recently, a $171-million bond measure to construct police facilities failed in 1995. Another bond for LAPD facilities is planned for a 1997 ballot, and some department officials worried Wednesday that the council's proposed tax to support officers might take momentum away from the campaign for better facilities, which a consultant estimated could cost $400 million.
Several council members said they believe voters are more likely to tax themselves in exchange for more officers than for police bonds, which have been badly managed in the past.
Proposition 1, which would have funded 1,000 more officers, earned 59% support from voters in 1993 and an identical measure won 63% of the ballots the year before. Council members said they think they can push the tax over the 66.7% hurdle this time because there has been so much emphasis on the LAPD expansion over the last three years. They also promised to campaign hard for the tax, which few of them did previously.
Regardless of the specifics, Sherman Oaks attorney Richard Close--who led the campaign against the 1995 police bond--said Wednesday that he found the council action "very troublesome."
"The first priority of local government is police protection. The city has a $4-billion budget. They should be allocating more funds from that budget rather than asking for new taxes," Close said, adding that a property-based tax is unfair because it hits homeowners and businesses but not people who work in Los Angeles and live elsewhere.
Times staff writers Greg Krikorian and Jim Newton contributed to this story.