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Calls for Assistance Hung Up in Overburdened 911 System

Last in a series of stories on Los Angeles city services.

October 19, 2002|Beth Shuster | Times Staff Writer

You can hear the weary desperation in the man's voice: "Every day I call the police, and every day the police don't come."

He is complaining -- again -- to a 911 operator about the dirt bike riders who are squealing their tires up and down the hill behind his South Los Angeles apartment.

"I know there are people getting burglarized and robbed, but I have my rights too," the man tells the operator, who is patiently taking a report. "It disturbs my quality of life."

It's a familiar refrain for the operators who answer the nonemergency phone lines in the Los Angeles Police Department's 911 dispatch center across the street from Parker Center downtown. Working in a stuffy office four floors below ground, the operators receive thousands of calls a day.

Some callers receive police assistance. Others never do.

The reasons vary. Some people simply call the wrong number: The tree branch that snaps off into the street is not an LAPD problem but a street services one. Others call about problems that the police are too busy to address immediately: An officer cannot make it to the scene of a hit-and-run car crash in which no one has been hurt.

The calls that get no response, however, lead to criticism of the LAPD, and have helped drive the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood secession movements.

Some view the LAPD as unresponsive, out of touch with the communities it serves. It is at least 1,000 officers short, with recruitment only recently starting to improve. As a result, response times are lengthy, while the crime rate is increasing.

The LAPD has been rocked by the Rampart corruption scandal and the department now operates under a federal consent decree, negotiated to ensure changes are made.

Public safety is a touchstone for leaders of the secession efforts. Voters will decide Nov. 5 whether to create separate cities for Hollywood and the Valley, and organizers of the secession campaigns say public safety is the main reason people support them.

"People don't feel there's enough of a presence of law enforcement," said Richard Katz, a former state assemblyman and a Valley secession leader. "They don't see enough black-and-white patrol cars, they don't see enough senior lead officers."

If secession is approved for the Valley, organizers say, Los Angeles still would provide police services for at least the first 18 months after the vote. The new city would contract with the LAPD until a new mayor and city council decided how to handle public safety.

Their options would be to create a Valley police department, continue to contract with the LAPD or some combination of the two. Some also have suggested that a new city could contract with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. A Hollywood city would likely contract with the LAPD for law enforcement services.

Some secession backers believe the Valley would be best off with its own police force. And they believe they would not have the same problems recruiting officers.

"I'm very confident that, if the council and the mayor decided to establish a police department within the San Fernando Valley, that would be a very attractive department for police officers," said Keith Richman, a candidate for mayor in a Valley city. "Salaries and benefits would be competitive. It would be a good place to work."

Reducing the LAPD's lengthy response times to emergencies would be a main priority for the new cities, secession leaders say. The department's citywide average is a 10-minute response. For calls deemed nonemergencies, waits can be much, much longer.

At one point at the 911 center recently, 38 people were awaiting officers for a variety of reasons. One caller had been waiting 59 minutes after reporting a trespasser. Another was still waiting 36 minutes after calling about a family dispute. A third, who had reported a fight between neighbors, was waiting 39 minutes.

The response time problem mostly comes down to a combination of the city's size and the relative thinness of the LAPD's ranks.

The department says the large area it covers -- coupled with the volume of emergency and nonemergency calls -- are impediments to quicker service.

Supporters of smaller cities point to Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena as examples of police departments that can handle emergency and nonemergency calls much faster.

In Burbank, for example, police respond to emergencies in about three minutes; in Glendale, response time is about five minutes; and in Pasadena, it's four minutes.

But those cities are equivalent in some cases to just one LAPD division, and a Valley city, would be the sixth-largest in the country.

The Foothill police station in the northeast Valley, for example, serves 262,000 people and covers more than 61 square miles. Its response time is 10.4 minutes, according to the most recent LAPD reports. Pasadena, by contrast, has about 141,000 people. Foothill has about 350 officers and Pasadena has 247.

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