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Policing the LAPD's spending

An audit raises troubling questions about how the department tracks its funds, but at least it's being open about the problem.

December 17, 2009

At the heart of the Los Angeles Police Department's post-Rampart rebirth is its commitment to transparency and to the scientific collection and examination of data in the service of rigorous self-examination. So there was good news and bad in an audit report, discussed at the Police Commission on Tuesday, that found the LAPD had mismanaged millions of dollars in buying supplies.

The bad is obvious: The new culture of data tracking hasn't reached the personnel who order goods and services. No receipts could be produced to account for $2.6 million in spending. Purchases were made without required competitive bidding, and orders passed through the system without authorization. The LAPD violated city anti-fraud policy by allowing the same offices that ordered goods to take possession. Supply workers apparently were unaware of the rules that govern their core functions, and there was no manual in which such rules could be found.

The internal audit studied 102 purchases selected at random from 2007-08, when William J. Bratton was LAPD chief. Bratton left the department in October and was succeeded by Chief Charlie Beck.

At best, the audit points to sloppiness in purchasing -- never a good sign, but especially troubling in an era of scarce resources. The LAPD is by far the city's largest department, consuming a majority of the city's discretionary spending. It is working simply to hold steady the number of uniformed officers, but Beck is committed to expansion as soon as economic conditions permit. As Beck himself noted, he can't go to the City Council or the public asking for more funding and more officers if the LAPD can't demonstrate that it's properly spending the money it already has.

Let's hope that sloppiness is the worst of it. There is no evidence of fraud or other criminal conduct, and the department is following up to track the undocumented spending. The real concern is that some parts of the department remain pervaded by a certain arrogance that encourages contempt for city rules. That attitude is at direct odds with, but may survive alongside, the LAPD's asserted focus on openness.

The good news is that the audit, conducted by the LAPD's Internal Audits and Inspections Division, was undertaken at all, and that it was presented and discussed in public. A 2007 report by then-Controller Laura Chick found the department to have insufficient internal controls and called for periodic audits of a variety of functions, including supply procurement. The Internal Audits and Inspections Division review is just such an audit, with its findings aired in a public hearing, in the best new tradition of transparency and self-evaluation.

Now it's up to the department to follow up. The real test comes not merely with the next internal audit, which we hope will find that all purchases were properly put out to bid and were appropriately documented, but with the next audit by the city controller that examines whether the LAPD finally has put technology and wise management to use in improving its business functions, just as it has done with crime-fighting.

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