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Yes to More Police Protection

September 27, 2004

Measure A, the Los Angeles County Public Safety, Emergency Response and Crime Prevention Measure, asks voters to hike the L.A. County sales tax by half a cent to hire 5,000 police officers and sheriff's deputies. Do we need more officers? And if so, is there any other way to pay for them?

The answer to the first question is an overwhelming yes. The Los Angeles area has fewer police per capita than any other major U.S. city. New York City has 37,000 officers to serve and protect 8 million people. Sprawling Los Angeles County has 26,000 police officers and sheriff's deputies and a population of almost 10 million.

Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton was able to reduce homicide rates dramatically in 2003 by concentrating officers in South Los Angeles, the epicenter of gang violence. But he simply does not have the manpower to maintain that kind of intensive policing without shorting other neighborhoods. Consequently, the LAPD is forced to be reactive rather than proactive in fighting crime. That's true countywide.

In addition to putting more officers on the streets, the sales-tax hike would provide $50 million a year to equally understaffed county jails. Again, the numbers tell the story. New York City has 9,500 jailers to guard 14,100 inmates. Cook County, Ill., has 2,500 jailers to watch over 10,600 inmates. L.A. County has 2,100 jailers for 17,800 inmates. Sheriff Lee Baca has been forced to close jails and free thousands of low-level offenders who served only a fraction of their sentences. The remaining inmates are jammed into crowded cells and forced to sleep on concrete floors. Amid the chaos, five inmates were killed in the last year.

Is there a better way to pay for these fundamental services? We wish. Competing state initiatives, propositions 1A and 65, aim to protect cities' and counties' budgets from state raids during tight budget years. Perhaps that would at least help stabilize local budgets. But neither would provide new money. We do not lightly support single-purpose tax initiatives. Measure A has spending accountability safeguards. Supervisors can vote to rescind it after seven years. And although it would boost Los Angeles County's sales tax from 8.25% to 8.75%, higher than all but one other California county, the rate would be in line with sales taxes in other large cities, such as New York City and Chicago. More important, so would police staffing. The Times recommends a "yes" vote on Measure A.

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