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Delay the Encore

February 11, 2005

There's no question that Los Angeles needs more police on its dangerously understaffed force. But the City Council was right Wednesday to reject putting a sales-tax hike on the May ballot to pay for 1,200 more officers. When it comes up for a final vote today, that decision ought to stand.

It's a matter of practicality, not need. Despite its sprawl, Los Angeles has the fewest police officers per capita -- one for every 400 residents -- among the nation's big cities. New York City has one officer for every 220 residents; with 36,300 officers, its force is almost four times as large as the Los Angeles Police Department. Chicago has 4,400 more officers and nearly a million fewer residents than L.A.

A similar tax was narrowly rejected by Los Angeles voters when it was part of a countywide proposal with virtually no opposition three months ago. There is no reason to believe it would fare better this spring, particularly because the issue is entangled in the mayoral race. A recent Times poll shows fewer than 50% of voters in favor of the measure -- it would need more than 66% to pass -- and that was before the uproar over Sunday's police shooting of a 13-year-old boy in South Los Angeles.

There are other ways to pay for additional officers in the short term. The council has already approved a measure to borrow against the city's portion of state vehicle license fees to hire 250 officers this summer. And several council members have expressed support for Mayor James K. Hahn's idea of increasing trash-collection fees to hire 300 more. That should keep the Police Academy's training classes full for the near future.

A delay would remove the issue from the political maelstrom and encourage the formation of a comprehensive plan with the accountability demanded by taxpayers. The city ought to collaborate with the county and push again for a regional tax in 2006.

The LAPD also needs time to grow public confidence, which has suffered badly in some quarters this week.

Chief William J. Bratton is doing a commendable job of handling the fallout from the racially charged killing of 13-year-old Devin Brown. He met immediately with angry residents, painstakingly reconstructed the incident for the media and promised to develop by next week a new policy on shooting at moving vehicles. But his warning that the city risks "going up in flames" without the tax hike smacks of politicking. More officers alone won't defuse tensions in neighborhoods where residents feel they are under siege from criminals and police.

Bratton should continue adjusting deployment patterns to shift officers to the areas of greatest need and evaluate the effect of Hahn's generous gift to the police union -- the three-day workweek -- on crime-fighting and the relationship between residents and cops on the beat.

A continuously improving department would only build public willingness to pay for more police.

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