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Lack of Police Recruits May Cost L.A. Millions in Federal Aid

February 27, 2002|MATEA GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles could lose millions of dollars in federal aid if the Police Department doesn't dramatically step up the pace of officer recruitment, Mayor James K. Hahn warned Tuesday.

As part of President Clinton's initiative to put 100,000 more police officers on the streets, the city received $133 million to help with recruitment. But the LAPD, struggling to fill its ranks, has been able to use only about $4 million of the grant so far.

Los Angeles has one year left to spend the remaining money, which could be used to pay 90% of the salaries of 500 police officers for three years.

Hahn, who has been at odds with Police Chief Bernard C. Parks over Parks' attempt at a second term, said he is frustrated that more was not done to recruit officers and take advantage of the program.

"We really are behind the eight ball here because of the lack of attention paid to this issue during the last years," he said. "If we are unable to access these funds, these funds will go somewhere else."

LAPD Cmdr. Gary Brennan said the department has been working hard to bring new officers onto the force, adding that officials hope to hire 300 by June.

"The fact that we haven't met our hiring goals does not suggest we have not worked hard at it," said Brennan, noting that recruitment has been down in police departments across the country. "It suggests there are lot of other factors at play."

Brennan said Clinton's initiative caused many cities to speed up their police hiring in recent years, making new recruits even more sought after. In recent months, the department has seen a surge in applicants.

Former City Councilman Mike Feuer said city officials have been worried for the last few years that the federal money could be at risk.

"It would be such a shame that at [a] time of rising crime" the city had to return federal money, Feuer said. "If there was ever an important moment when federal dollars were significant in Los Angeles, that moment is now."

Hahn and other city officials said they hope a recently streamlined recruitment process will help bring in more officers this year. The wait to get hired by the LAPD has been whittled from nine months to about 150 days, the mayor said.

If the city fails to take advantage of the grant money, it risks more than just federal support, said City Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, chairwoman of the Public Safety Committee.

"It's good money we wouldn't be able to use; but more than that, it would mean we had failed in getting the number of officers in the system that we need," Miscikowski said.

When then-Vice President Al Gore came to the city in September 1998 and announced that Los Angeles was getting $133 million to hire officers--its largest federal policing grant--local officials were jubilant.

"The message to criminals is clear," then-Mayor Richard Riordan said. "It's your turn to be afraid."

But before the city had a chance to use the money, the number of applicants to the Police Department began dropping.

By June 2000, the department had lost 200 more officers to attrition than expected and hired only half of the 800 recruits it had planned on for that fiscal year.

During the next year, almost half of the Police Academy training classes had to be canceled because of a lack of recruits.

The Police Department has been struggling to keep its numbers up for several years, hampered by a complicated and long application process and competition from smaller departments. Recently, an additional requirement that potential officers take a polygraph exam created a huge backlog.

In December 2000, the department's ranks fell to 9,140--17 officers below the baseline set by the federal government, making the grant money off-limits.

In early 2001, Riordan's office sought and received a waiver from the U.S. Department of Justice that lowered the baseline to 8,126 officers. The city used the grant money for the first time that spring, hiring 79 officers.

Hahn called it embarrassing that officials had to ask the federal government for lenience. The mayor said he hopes the faster application process and a new, flexible work schedule will attract more people and allow the city to use the funds.

If Los Angeles can't spend this money, Hahn added, "you run the risk of not being on the list the next year."

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