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Would more police mean even less crime?

July 23, 2007|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

It was Christmas in July last week for Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who received some good news: Major crime this year was again down in the city. This is the kind of thing all politicians pray for: to be in office when crime drops. It's also the kind of thing politicians build campaigns around.

The news was also welcome, of course, because it was a nice break for Villaraigosa from the headlines and jokes about his dalliance with a television reporter -- an affair that obscured some accomplishments.

The foremost is the size of the Los Angeles Police Department. When Villaraigosa took office in July 2005, the LAPD had 9,181 officers. He vowed to increase the size of the force, and today the LAPD has 9,511 officers.

But does a larger LAPD guarantee that crime will keep going down?

It is difficult to say.

Experts over the years have struggled to find a correlation between the size of a police force and crime. At best, the data have been mixed.

Police Chief William J. Bratton has opined early and often in his five years here that Los Angeles is under-policed and that a larger force would allow him to strategically deploy officers to problem areas. Ideally, Bratton has said, he wants 12,500 officers; Villaraigosa has promised a force of more than 10,000.

Bratton has argued that more officers can make a difference. An example from earlier in his tenure: In 2003, Bratton said that he deployed 83 extra officers to the 77th Street Division in South L.A. and homicides dropped by 57%. When some of those officers were redeployed elsewhere the next year, homicides went up 42%.

So what does the accompanying chart show?

Think twice about accepting that job transfer to Detroit....

The chart also shows that, though Los Angeles is under-policed compared to cities such as New York and Chicago, eight of the nation's 15 biggest cities have fewer officers per capita.

The most vexing aspect of the chart is trying to find patterns. San Jose, for example, has 147 officers per 100,000 residents -- the lowest among the biggest cities -- but also has the least amount of violent crime, with 383 incidents per 100,000 residents. Detroit, on the other hand, has 351 officers per 100,000 residents but also had 2,459 violent crimes per 100,000 residents. That's three times the rate in L.A.

"I'm not going to say that having more cops is going to solve the crime problem," said Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA. "You can have a very large, lousy police force."

Nonetheless, Kleiman said he thinks that having a larger police force in Los Angeles -- with Bratton at the helm -- probably would help. Kleiman also said he would like to see standards for joining the LAPD change, with more emphasis on psychological fitness and less on physical fitness.

As for Villaraigosa, to help him track his progress on the police hiring front, we'll be running a box with this column at the end of each month showing the size of the LAPD and whether it's growing or shrinking.

What can apartment dwellers in Los Angeles do this week that they couldn't do a couple of weeks ago?

Recycle.

For reasons difficult to explain, apartment and condo dwellers in Los Angeles have for decades had their trash picked up by private haulers instead of city crews. That, too, has meant that apartment residents haven't been able to participate in curbside recycling.

Thanks to the City Council and the mayor, that has changed. You can sign up your apartment building for recycling by calling the city's all-purpose line at 311. On the list of recyclables is packing foam, which many cities do not recycle. Packing peanuts, however, can't be recycled.

By the way, if you live in L.A., you've been slacking on the recycling lately. Here's the amount of recycling by fiscal year and tonnage for the last five years:

2002-03: 252,006 tons

2003-04: 264,431 tons

2004-05: 277,400 tons

2005-06: 272,892 tons

2006-07: 266,873 tons.

The next big thing in garbage?

Los Angeles is in the midst of trying to build five or six garbage-munching plants to avoid dumping all that trash in landfills. Firms have until late August to submit their proposals to the city.

But will neighborhoods accept them?

Officially, the facilities are known as waste-conversion plants because they take waste and turn it into something else -- such as ethanol -- while hopefully producing as few emissions as possible.

Councilman Greig Smith, who has been leading the push for the facilities, thinks residents will accept them because the plants will be only in industrial areas and near freeways. Smith, too, says the plants -- which are relatively common in Europe and Asia -- will have little in the way of emissions.

"We have to go to the neighborhoods and say, 'This is not your daddy's dirty old trash plant,' " Smith said. "You won't see it or smell it."

It will be mighty interesting to see which of Smith's colleagues are willing to invite a plant into their district.

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