Facing a chronic shortage of civilian jail guards, the Los Angeles Police Department plans to close jails at its West Valley and Southeast divisions, which officials say will allow sworn officers to spend more time on street patrol.
Police in the Southeast Division anticipate few problems with the plan that would have them take suspects just two miles away, to the 77th Division.
In the sprawling San Fernando Valley, however, the plan is more controversial: If the West Valley jail in Reseda shuts down, officers would need to transport suspects either to the Van Nuys jail about seven miles away or to the Devonshire Division jail about five miles away.
The jails, which can handle about 40 to 50 inmates each, are used to hold suspects--usually for 48 to 72 hours--before their arraignments. Under the proposal, about two dozen civilian staffers would be reassigned to another LAPD jail.
Valley residents rallied to stop a planned jail closure in 1994, arguing that closing the West Valley jail would actually take away street patrol time, because officers would have to transport suspects farther.
Today, opposition is still strong among some West Valley residents, as well as among the detention officers.
"We're already short [on officers]," said Marilyn Robinson, a Winnetka resident and member of the West Valley Community Police Advisory Board. "This will make us even shorter."
Joe Bonino, commanding officer of the LAPD's jail division, defended the proposal Thursday, arguing that officers in a number of divisions in central L.A. drive elsewhere to book suspects and get along just fine.
"Hollenbeck, Northeast, Rampart and Central all book at Parker Center--none of them have jails of their own," he said. "What we're really trying to be is prudent and be good managers. I think that's in the long-term best interests of the city."
At the heart of the issue, police officials say, are LAPD recruiting problems. The jail division, like the LAPD in general, is having trouble competing for good employees in a strong economy.
Annual salary for an LAPD detention officer ranges from about $32,000 to $41,000, said Julie Butcher, general manager for Local 347 of the Service Employees International Union.
The LAPD has also had difficulty finding recruits who can pass the department's background check.
These issues, coupled with the fact that a number of employees have been injured and cannot offer full security at the jails, have caused about 60 vacancies on the jail division's 335-person civilian force, he said.
At some jails, he said, sworn officers must perform civilian guard duties. In some cases, just one detention officer stands on guard at the jails--a risky proposition, Bonino said.
"It's better to have backup," he said. "If you're opening a cell all by yourself, I don't think anyone would agree that's a good plan."
The proposal to close the jails was included in this year's city budget, Bonino said, but it wasn't until Thursday that the LAPD sat down with representatives from the detention officers' unions, SEIU Locals 347 and 777, to begin negotiating the terms.
The negotiations will continue at a meeting on Feb. 2.
If the two sides reach an agreement, the proposal will go to the Los Angeles City Council's Public Safety Committee and then to the full council for final approval. City and police officials are not sure when the council will take up the issue.
Although the proposal calls for no layoffs and is considered cost-neutral, union leaders are skeptical of its merits. Butcher said the decision "doesn't make operational sense."
"It makes more sense to figure out how to fill the vacancies," she said.
She also said the plan doesn't take into account the need for the facilities if crime increases. "It will cost them four times as much to reopen [the jails] if they decide there's a mistake," she said.
Bonino said that while the plan now calls for closing the two jails permanently, that could change during negotiations.
Councilwoman Laura Chick, who represents the West Valley area, opposed a closure proposal for the West Valley jail in 1994, saying that the added time to transport suspects would eat into crime-fighting. She now supports the measure, calling it a "temporary necessity" due to the staffing crunch.
"In an ideal world, I wouldn't want this, but in an ideal world, with no worry about resources, we wouldn't change either of these two jails," she said.
The closure plan is not widely known in the Southeast Division, a 150,000-resident area that includes Watts and the Nickerson Gardens housing complex.
Last year, the citywide homicide rate surged 25%, with the Southeast Division--which had 80 killings--experiencing more than any other.
The closure plan has some area residents worried.
"I'm not happy about it," said Alice Henderson, co-chairwoman of the Southeast Division's police advisory board. "I think it is going to take longer to book prisoners."
Henderson noted that the division, like many across the city, has been hit by a reshuffling announced in November that has cut into specialized police units. The reshuffling, envisioned by LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks as a way to allow a shrinking force to better combat a yearlong surge in crime, has sent officers from specialized details that had heavy desk work back to the streets.
Henderson said those moves, and the jail closures, were misguided.
"I think that the cutbacks the department is making to try to get more officers on the streets should come from the upper echelons, not from the divisions. These things should come from the top down."