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Give Bratton the Tools

The chief needs a stronger police force. City Hall should stop squabbling and find ways to quickly boost the total of officers.

May 21, 2003

Los Angeles didn't hire Police Chief William J. Bratton to make incremental changes. It hired him to quell an alarming rise in gang violence that last year made Los Angeles the murder capital of the nation and last weekend alone left 10 people dead -- one more than the number killed by suicide bombers in Israel. It hired him to turn around a department scandalized by the Rampart Division abuses and notorious for deflecting scrutiny. It hired him to prepare Los Angeles for terrorist threats. It must hold him accountable but also give him the tools to do the job.

Mayor James K. Hahn and the City Council agree that the city needs more police officers, but they are scrapping needlessly about how many and when they can be hired.

In his 2003-04 city budget, Hahn called for hiring 720 officers next year for a net increase of 320, assuming that 400 retire or otherwise leave the force. It's a modest goal considering that the current 9,200-officer force means only one cop for every 400 residents, the worst ratio among the nation's five largest cities.

But the council, spooked by the fiscal meltdown underway in state government, voted Monday to substitute a wait-and-see approach under which only 400 officers would be hired between July 1 and Dec. 31. Later, the council would take a second look at what it considers the mayor's optimistic revenue forecast and pessimistic predictions of how many officers will leave the force; then it would release more money -- if any was available -- to hire up to the net gain of 320 officers.

The two sides are closer to agreement than last week's slugfest would suggest. But their grandstanding has turned a simple disagreement into a brawl. Even if the council is being overly cautious -- the city is in far better shape than the state, after all -- Hahn has refused to acknowledge members' concerns. He has threatened to veto any cuts to his proposed police spending; ditto for any fee increases, above the ones he already proposed, to pay for the extra police. The mayor's stance pushed council members already politicking for internal elections and future campaigns (possibly against Hahn himself) to assert their budgeting role.

The council dug in its heels further after Bratton, more accustomed to in-your-face New York than stab-you-in-the-back Los Angeles, flippantly accused it of being in cahoots with Osama bin Laden for denying him all the officers he felt he needed. If the hyperbole was too thick, the council's skin was too thin; it knew what it was getting when it approved hiring the brash Bratton seven months ago.

The council has made its point. Now it needs to make a commitment to a net increase of at least 300 police officers -- not a "maybe" in six months, which is no way to run a department. The mayor needs to answer questions and show flexibility on ways to pay for the new cops beyond this year.

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