Despite a jump in serious crime at city-run housing for the poor, the Los Angeles Housing Authority has halved its police budget and is ending overnight patrols, citing a shortage of funds.
The authority's police force may be disbanded altogether at the end of the year unless new money can be found to replace expiring grants, officials said.
The cutbacks trouble many of the thousands of residents who say they already feel vulnerable at the city's 15 housing projects. And representatives of the Los Angeles Police Department concede that it won't be easy for them to pick up the slack inside the crowded complexes, where they have clashed with tenants in the past.
Donald J. Smith, the Housing Authority's executive director, said he is struggling to maintain the agency's police presence. "It's a funding issue," he said. "I simply don't have the funding."
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has moved to cut the public housing drug-elimination program nationwide, which has provided housing authorities with $309 million annually that could be used for policing, Smith said.
Locally, the cuts have affected several agencies, including the housing authorities of Ventura County, which serves 600 low-income residents, and of Los Angeles County, which serves about 3,600 families.
In addition, HUD has mandated that the Los Angeles Housing Authority redirect money to maintenance that had been diverted for many years to policing, Smith said.
HUD spokeswoman Nancy Segerdahl said policing reductions should not be blamed on the federal agency. Although it cut the drug-elimination program, an equal amount of money was added to operating funds for housing authorities, which can be used for everything from repairing housing to policing, she said.
In addition, HUD does not mandate how the money is spent, she said, leaving it up to the housing authorities, although they must maintain housing as habitable.
Smith said the requirement to address deferred maintenance is what caused him to switch funds from policing to repairs.
The federal money was meant to augment, not be a substitute for, local funding of police departments serving housing developments, HUD officials said.
That is the message Los Angeles housing officials received from Washington.
"The LAPD is responsible for enforcing the law in public housing," said Smith, who oversees an agency operating 15 major housing developments that are home to 22,500 low-income people.
Agency's Officers Built Rapport With Residents
Residents denounced the cuts.
"We have enough problems as it is," said Sandra Obando, president of the San Fernando Gardens residents council. "We don't need them taking our Housing Authority police away. We don't feel safe."
Southeast area housing projects, particularly Jordan Downs, were the site of several attacks against LAPD officers by crowds last summer. Most of those occurred as officers tried to make arrests.
One benefit of the Housing Authority police program, some said, is that those officers built a rapport with residents.
George Holt, president of the union representing the agency's supervisory officers, called it a "terrible idea" to reduce patrols.
"Even though the LAPD would like to provide some help, they can't do it. They don't have the officers," he said. "The residents are going to pay the price."
Holt said most crime is committed overnight, when authority officers will not be on patrol.
Officially, the LAPD is prepared to assume a greater role in the housing developments. But some officials in the department are concerned.
"Without their helping at night, it's going to get worse," said Julian Almaraz, the LAPD senior lead officer assigned to San Fernando Gardens. "At least they [authority officers] keep tabs on the people there."
Patrick Gannon, a captain formerly in charge of the LAPD's Southeast Division, acknowledged that Housing Authority officers played an important role in reducing tension.
"Did we come to rely on them? Yes, we did," said Gannon, who now works in the LAPD's Internal Affairs Group. He said the department has counted on Housing Authority officers for "things maybe we should have been doing."
"They constantly were on top of that; they worked that relationship [with residents]," Gannon said. "You need the ability to know who to talk to, rather than get into a large melee."
The Southeast Division has taken some steps to improve relationships with residents in five of the most troubled housing projects. It has called numerous community meetings and established a Neighborhood Police Academy, which offers workshops designed to help officers and tenants better understand each other.
Major Crime at Projects Soared 16.7% Last Year
Authorities and residents alike say the need for a police presence is clear.
Major crime at the city's public housing projects jumped 16.7% last year. Arson and vandalism doubled in the same period. In contrast, the increase in serious crime for the city overall was 7%.