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L.A. still needs more cops

Times are tough; every city department is under pressure. But the LAPD must keep hiring.

May 16, 2009|TIM RUTTEN

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William Bratton were right to be outraged this week when the City Council's closely divided Budget and Finance Committee voted to ignore their budget recommendation and imposed a hiring freeze on the Los Angeles Police Department.

It's true that city officials are currently struggling to close the worst budget deficit since the Depression. But the mayor and the chief are right when they argue that halting the LAPD's growth is false economy.

The problem is that you can't freeze the force at its current level; new hiring has to occur simply to compensate for attrition. The force either continues to grow toward the goal of 10,000 officers -- which is the number that reformers have long argued is essential for effective policing -- or it begins to lose the more than 750 officers who've been added over the last four years.

Villaraigosa proposed one way to pay for continued growth: privatizing the city's parking meters. By every reasonable estimate, that should generate more than $1.5 billion for the city's general fund over the next five years -- more than enough to pay for the additional officers.

Perhaps when committee members Bernard C. Parks, Greig Smith and Bill Rosendahl voted to freeze LAPD hiring and reject the new revenue stream, they weren't doing it because, by tradition, council members get to retain parking revenues for discretionary expenditure within their districts. It's probably also coincidental that they declined to reduce any part of the $228 million the council reserves for members' discretionary expenditures each year.

Still, in a crisis, the burden of justifying budget allocations ought to be shared. Here's what the LAPD has done with the extra officers it has hired over the last four years: Murder is down 32% year over year and 27% over two years; assault, down 5.6% and 10.1%; rape, down 8.2% and 13%; shootings -- the precursors to most L.A. homicides -- off 20.5% and 28.6%.

Charlie Beck, a second-generation LAPD officer, is chief of the department's detectives, and he knows these numbers from the street up. He's keen to point out that they tell only part of the story of crime suppression. The best available studies show that every murder costs the city's residents somewhere between $4 million and $11 million; an assault costs between $20,000 and $123,000; a rape between $117,000 and $283,000.

In Beck's view, every downward tick in the crime stats is more money for civic development.

"L.A. is the perfect place to begin a family, start a business and build a life, absent crime and, particularly, the gang crime with which we're still struggling," he says. "We need to move ahead there because, after the recession, people will want to reinvest in Los Angeles, and our job is to prepare the ground for that recovery by diminishing crime and the fear of crime."

This coming week, criminal justice experts from Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government will release a study they've done on how the LAPD has fared since the imposition of the federal consent decree under which the department now operates.

That study will document sweeping reforms and also fundamental changes in public attitudes toward crime. The percentage of Angelenos who believe crime is "a big problem" has fallen over the last four years to 38% from 58%. More important, no matter what the ethnic community or geographic area, less than half now believe crime is a significant issue. That's a stunning turnaround from a decade ago.

While crime rates and their causes always will be subject for debate, it's simply irrational to assume that the dramatic decline of criminality achieved in Los Angeles since then-Mayor James Hahn appointed Bratton can't, in some significant measure, be attributed to the increased number of officers on which the chief and the last two mayors have insisted.

That makes it all the more urgent that the City Council take it on itself to disregard the Budget and Finance Committee's ill-considered vote and fund Villaraigosa's effort to give the LAPD the additional 200 men and women needed to complete the 1,000-officer expansion voters were promised both in the mayoral election of 2005 and then again during the fight to increase trash collection fees to pay for the growth. In each case, the people of the city indicated forcefully that they want a bigger police force.

The LAPD's dramatic transformation under Bratton's reform administration is one of Los Angeles' unambiguous success stories. It is one, moreover, in whose benefits the entire city shares. That's a civic asset of far more value than the revenues from a clutch of parking meters. Even in a crisis, false economy is never anything but false.

--

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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