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A Thorny Secession Issue: Who Would Police Valley?

Safety: Creating a major urban law enforcement agency from scratch would be an unprecedented task.

July 18, 1999|JIM NEWTON and MIGUEL BUSTILLO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As Los Angeles contemplates its dissolution, the secessionist debate centered in the San Fernando Valley carries potentially huge implications for the future of city services, ranging from such mundane tasks as sewage disposal to lifesaving activities like emergency response.

Nowhere does that debate have more critical consequences than in its discussion of who would inherit the job of protecting the new Valley city's residents from crime and the kind of urban tragedy for which Los Angeles is justifiably infamous. Just as important: Who would police the city that was left?

Partisans on both sides of the debate exaggerate.

Secessionists depict a new, Valley-only police department in Mayberry-, or at least Glendale-like, terms, suggesting that small-town policing would come to their new city. In fact, the new city would be one of the nation's 10 largest.

At the same time, secession's opponents warn of a diminished, greenhorn cousin to the LAPD, one barely able to respond to radio calls, much less handle the inevitable earthquake, riot or other calamities that routinely visit the region. They also warn of an LAPD dangerously diminished by an arbitrary division of its ranks.

What is clear, say police officials and other experts, is that the Valley, should it secede, would face a historically unrivaled challenge in building a major urban police force essentially from scratch. At least in the short run, it likely would be forced to turn to outside help, possibly even back to the LAPD, for management assistance and some of the specialized services of a modern law enforcement agency--such things as the LAPD's mounted unit and SWAT force.

The LAPD, meanwhile, would face a circumstance unlike any it has ever encountered: retooling its operations inside smaller borders and either laying off thousands of police officers or figuring out how to hand them off to the Valley without undermining the protection of Los Angeles.

Advocates of a secession study and public vote on the idea have offered scant details about their vision for a new police department, arguing that it is premature to fill in those blanks. But they generally have indicated that they believe any hard assets north of the Hollywood Hills should stay with the Valley.

In one sense, that makes chopping up the LAPD simple: Take away the five police stations north of Mulholland Drive and leave the rest.

But the LAPD is a deeply integrated and centralized organization, with its various entities backing one another up. SWAT, helicopter units, the bomb squad, canine units, the evidence lab--all those and more are based outside the Valley in downtown Los Angeles.

Would the Valley relinquish all of those assets if it broke away? If it kept a portion, what is a fair share? Who would choose?

"This is not just about five police stations," said LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks. "There's an umbrella of resources that makes this department function. You can't just tear that up."

Separating intertwined systems like the 911 response network would be difficult and, in some cases, impossible. And the psychological question of when to call on the LAPD for help--in an earthquake, in a hostage situation, in a bloody shootout like the infamous North Hollywood bank robbery--would be more complex than most observers today are willing to discuss.

Even the most ardent secession advocates concede that the task of reconfiguring the region's law enforcement would not be simple.

"I don't see these problems as insurmountable," said Valley businessman Bert Boeckmann, a leading secession advocate and member of the city's Police Commission. "But it will take a lot of hard work."

If secession proponents won the right to break up Los Angeles through a citywide vote, the new city's leaders would be faced with three options: build their own police department, rent the services of an existing agency or blend the two approaches, perhaps hiring an outside agency to provide management and special services while absorbing rank-and-file employees from the LAPD.

Each option carries implications for the key issues that frame the secession debate: equity and local control.

For years, some Valley residents have complained that they do not receive their fair share of police services. The Valley, they note, has about one-third of the overall Los Angeles population, but only about one-fifth of all LAPD officers are assigned to Valley divisions.

In some respects, that comparison is misleading. First, the Valley is the LAPD's largest bureau, receiving more police officers--roughly 1,850--than any other part of Los Angeles. So although it does not receive a full third of the 9,600-officer police force, it is allocated more than any comparable area, despite the fact that the Valley produced fewer serious crimes and traffic accidents in 1998 than any of the LAPD's three other bureaus, which cover the central city, the Westside and south Los Angeles all the way to the harbor.

Response Time Higher in Valley

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