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Can N.Y.'s Lessons Be Transferred to L.A.?

Police: Two NYPD veterans up for the chief's job would find some similarities--and many differences.

September 28, 2002|JILL LEOVY and DOUG SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Two of the three candidates for the Los Angeles Police Department's top job are veterans of the New York City Police Department, and they are promoting their experience as an advantage.

To many LAPD loyalists, however, the East Coast experience of John F. Timoney and William Bratton doesn't count for much. New York and Los Angeles present distinct policing challenges, they argue, and historically, the police departments differed in their approach to crime fighting, institutional structure and political oversight.

New York has a much larger force to draw upon, and the NYPD is recording twice as many arrests per officer as the LAPD. In Los Angeles, officers patrol far more territory and, on average, make more arrests in serious crimes. In recent years the NYPD has been lauded for its success fighting crime simply by mobilizing large masses of officers.

If Bratton or Timoney takes the helm in Los Angeles, said Greg Berg, a retired LAPD commander, "they will be very much surprised to find how few people they have."

But a close look at both cities shows that some of those differences have been blurred, in part because police work has become more standardized, law enforcement experts say.

For today's police officer, "the core job is portable," said Alan Deal of the California Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training.

Police leaders across the country have increasingly favored simple, practical strategies for law enforcement that emphasize accountability and data collection and can be applied anywhere, said Berg. The prevailing view is, "If you are going to be a police leader, you have to know about the fundamentals," Berg said. "That's crime fighting, and leading police. Those are basic.

"And if you can do it in New York, you can do it anywhere."

At the same time, public controversies and political change in New York and Los Angeles have produced a kind of convergence between the two police departments.

Former LAPD Chief Ed Davis, long a champion of the LAPD, said that a comparison of the two departments would produce a result closer to a draw than in the past.

The cities that the departments represent reflect such contrasts and similarities. New York has larger numbers of almost every ethnic group, including Latinos.

A larger proportion of Los Angeles residents are Latino, however--47% compared with 27% of New York residents.

In Los Angeles, the non-Latino white population has declined to 30% of the total, according to the most recent U.S. census figures. But New York is not far behind at 35%.

New York has a higher percentage of black residents--24% compared with Los Angeles' 11%. Both cities are about 10% Asian. Los Angeles' police force appears to be more ethnically diverse than New York's, and closer to parity with the city's population.

The proportion of foreign-born populations of both cities is comparable, with Los Angeles' slightly higher. But immigrants from the Americas, particularly Central America, predominate in Los Angeles, while New York draws more from the Caribbean.

Economically, according to the census, the two cities are nearly even. The median income in Los Angeles is $36,687, compared with New York's $38,293. And in both cities, just under one-fifth of residents live on incomes that fall below the poverty line.

The most striking difference is how close together people live. New York is nearly 3 1/2 times as dense, with more than 200,000 people per square mile in some neighborhoods.

Traditionally, criminologists have equated crowding with high crime rates, an axiom that has been challenged in New York in the 1990s, said Robert McCrie, chairman of the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

"That's the assumption people have worked on," he said. "But it needn't be that way."

New York's vast police force dwarfs Los Angeles'. The NYPD has 38,000 officers, compared with 9,025 in Los Angeles, and the NYPD patrols a much smaller--though more vertical--terrain.

There are 209 residents per officer in New York, compared with 409 per officer in Los Angeles.

There are more officers per square mile in New York--127 compared with 19 in Los Angeles. Dozens of New York City stations are within walking distance of one another; Los Angeles stations police areas from 4 1/2 to 65 square miles.

Those differences bear directly on policing tactics.

In New York, saturating an area with police officers to ward off crime through police presence is much easier. As one LAPD insider put it, when the NYPD has a problem, they can "trample" it.

In Los Angeles, by contrast, the department's long-standing reputation for aggressive policing was in part a consequence of the relatively sparse LAPD presence.

Lack of officers meant that, tactically, the LAPD had to create the impression of force.

Today, LAPD commanders speak with amazement and envy of the ability of the NYPD to deploy hundreds of uniformed officers to a single neighborhood when the need arises.

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