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Supervisors Considering End to County Police Force

Labor: Knabe and Antonovich see option after being ordered to pay $60 million.

June 20, 2002|HECTOR BECERRA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A day after a judge ordered Los Angeles County to pay a record sum of $60 million in back wages to its in-house police force, county supervisors said they might disband that department if their appeal fails.

County officials were still reeling Wednesday from the judgment, which would pay the 500-plus officers from the Office of Public Safety wages comparable to those of sheriff's deputies. On June 7, a jury unanimously ruled that the county, in its compensation practices, had discriminated racially against a predominantly minority police force. The ruling benefits all the officers, including white officers.

The ruling by Superior Court Judge Victor Chavez could cost the county about $100 million in back wages and upgraded pensions, plus an additional $140 million over the next 25 years in increased salaries for public safety officers.

While emphasizing that dissolving the police force was not being advocated yet, supervisors Don Knabe and Mike Antonovich said that would be a logical option if an appeal failed.

"In the face of $100 million, disbanding is an option we have to look at," Knabe said. "It has to be something that would be under consideration: to eliminate them. I just consider this award just outrageous. It's unbelievable to me that someone can rule against us like this."

Knabe said he was "not confident about an appeal. I was confident we'd never be stuck with this kind of a bill in the first place."

Antonovich said sheriff's deputies might have to take over patrols at county facilities. And while some public safety officers might be able to transfer to the Sheriff's Department, many might not qualify, he said.

"The sad part is that many people in the Office of Public Safety could end up losing their position because of the action of their union," which sued for the wage package, Antonovich said.

Attorneys for the officers reacted angrily to talk of disbanding the police force.

"Quite frankly, this is really irresponsible and another public policy decision being made, not on public safety or what's best for the citizens, but just a knee-jerk reaction to being told they're not getting their way," said attorney Patricia Bellasalma. "If they did that, it would be just to get rid of officers they do not want to pay. It would be another instance of showing their preference for a majority Caucasian Sheriff's Department."

She said the Sheriff's Department and county officials have long portrayed Office of Public Safety officers as bumbling and as security guards rather than police, to justify low pay.

During the trial, plaintiffs argued that sheriff's deputies and Los Angeles police officers often perform duties like those of security guards.

The jobs public safety officers do "are dangerous," said the plaintiffs' attorney, Jack O'Donnell. "Officers have been killed over the years, and their families have gotten nothing."

County officials have denied that race had anything to do with the compensation for county police officers.

Entry-level Office of Public Safety officers receive about $30,000; deputies begin at $42,000. County police do not receive safety retirement, a pension generally given to law enforcement officers and firefighters. County lifeguards get safety retirement.

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