Despite a blunt warning from the police chief that Los Angeles risks "going up in flames," a teary appeal from the fire chief and a rare personal plea from the mayor, the City Council on Wednesday rejected a proposal to put a measure on the ballot that would raise city sales taxes to pay for more police officers.
The council's angry and emotional debate came three days after the controversial police shooting of a 13-year-old African American boy rekindled smoldering antagonism between South Los Angeles residents and the Los Angeles Police Department.
Police Chief William J. Bratton cited the shooting of Devin Brown, telling the council that the killing poignantly underscored his call for 1,260 more officers.
"We have seen over the last two days the outrage of a community that feels it is not being policed either appropriately in terms of numbers of officers or effectively in terms of the way that our officers feel they must police," he said.
Raising the specter of the 1965 and 1992 riots, Bratton told the council, "You have the opportunity to put us finally on the road that will make us the safest largest city in America." But without additional officers, he warned, "At each incident we risk this city going up in flames once again, which has happened twice in recent history."
After the measure failed by a single vote, a visibly angry Mayor James K. Hahn called council members who voted against it "incredibly arrogant," and suggested that voters consider recalling two of them, including one of his mayoral opponents, Antonio Villaraigosa.
Hahn, who has led the fight for the half-cent city sales tax increase, faces an election in less than four weeks and has staked his campaign on his record on crime.
The impassioned three-hour debate was a striking departure for a City Council that usually resolves even the most contentious issues without open conflict. After a week of intense lobbying by the police chief and public safety representatives, the council voted 9 to 6 in favor of the measure, narrowly missing the required 10-vote supermajority needed to put it on the May 17 ballot.
Council members Alex Padilla, Bernard C. Parks, Greig Smith, Jack Weiss, Dennis Zine and Villaraigosa opposed the sales tax measure.
Parks, a mayoral candidate whom Hahn pushed out as police chief, has said raising the sales tax only in the city would drive businesses out of Los Angeles.
The measure would have increased the city's sales tax from 8.25% to 8.75% to raise $200 million a year to pay for new police officers. It also would have funded more firefighters and paramedics, gang intervention programs, and increased ambulance service.
The council's decision was the second time in three months it has turned down the proposal. In November, it voted against putting a similar measure on the March ballot.
After the vote, Hahn singled out longtime political rivals Villaraigosa and Weiss. "I'll tell you: People have a right to let those elected officials know when they go against their wishes. You know, the power of the recall is available to the people of this city," said the typically reserved mayor, his voice rising as he spoke.
Hahn aimed his most pointed criticism at the two councilmen because more than two-thirds of the voters in their districts supported a similar countywide sales tax measure in November.
Measure A, however, failed because it received only 60% of the vote countywide, short of the required two-thirds. It fared better in the city, receiving support from 64% of the voters.
Villaraigosa, one of four major challengers for Hahn's job in the March 8 election, said the mayor's remarks "sound like the utterings of a failed and desperate man."
Weiss responded, "The mayor is caught up in a tough political battle. It is unfortunate that this is causing him to lash out."
Both councilmen, who did not speak about the sales tax during the debate, have said that voters just recently rejected the countywide measure and that it was too soon to ask them to vote again.
The council's vote was the most recent in a decade-long series of unsuccessful attempts by Hahn and his predecessor, Mayor Richard Riordan, to find a way to hire more police. Los Angeles has historically been one of the nation's most under-policed cities, with about 9,100 officers for 3.8 million residents. By comparison, Chicago has 13,500 officers for 2.9 million residents.
"This City Council and the City Council before it cheated the people of Los Angeles by not providing more police officers," Councilman Tom LaBonge argued during the heated debate.
About a dozen residents addressed the council, including some who discounted Bratton's contention that Brown's killing was an argument for adding more police officers.
"How much is a black life worth today?" asked Damon Azali, 30, a community organizer with the Labor/Community Strategy Center. "It is obscene to think that a police department that can't stop from killing children is going to have 1,200 more flashlights to beat people with."