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Bratton is still firm about the size of the force

The departing L.A. police chief fights a proposed halt to the hiring of new officers.

October 10, 2009|Joel Rubin and David Zahniser

As he prepares to leave office, Police Chief William J. Bratton is battling the Los Angeles City Council one last time in an effort to protect what is considered among his most important legacies: increasing the size of the LAPD.

Bratton plans to address the council Tuesday in a last-ditch attempt to dissuade it from following through on a proposal to halt hiring of new officers and suspend the department's recruiting efforts until January. The proposal, which has gained considerable support in the last week, is aimed at helping to close the $405-million budget shortfall facing the city.

The suggestion that the city can save money by shrinking the Police Department hits a raw nerve with Bratton, who steps down at the end of the month. During his seven years on the job, he has pushed relentlessly to add officers to the department. Those additional cops, the chief has said, have played a large role in the LAPD's success in reducing crime and improving community relations.

On Friday, Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said they were primed for a fight to preserve the hiring, which has brought the department, long known for being understaffed, to the largest size in its history.

The battle brings Bratton full circle. Months after becoming chief in late 2002, the council put the brakes on the LAPD's extensive recruiting machine and rejected Bratton's call to add hundreds of officers.

"These are the same mistakes they made six or seven years ago, and why we keep going through this, I just don't get it," Bratton said after presiding over his final graduation ceremony at the Los Angeles Police Academy. The mayor "gets it. If I could just convince the other 15 members of city government, I think the whole city would be better off."

Bratton's rhetoric has irritated some council members, who argue that he fails to recognize the severity of Los Angeles' financial crisis and the need for every city agency to share in the pain.

"Which part of 'We can't afford to continue hiring' doesn't he get?" Councilwoman Jan Perry said about Bratton.

Some council members have been taken aback by the reaction from Villaraigosa and Bratton, saying the proposal only creates a two-month breather from recruitment so the council can reassess the extent of the city's budget problems. Bratton warned, however, that once the council is comfortable in suspending recruitment, it will feel free to do so again in January.

If the council halts hiring for the rest of the fiscal year, the LAPD will shrink by more than 300 officers by June 30, he said.

The council "is intent on dismantling a lot of the gains that have been made, under the guise of the economic crisis facing the city," Bratton said Wednesday during an off-the-cuff talk at an event hosted by Los Angeles magazine. At one point he said that the council, if it goes through with its plans, would be reneging on a deal with taxpayers to spend increased trash collection fees on public safety issues.

Bratton saved some of his harshest comments for the council's newest member, Paul Koretz, who has called the hiring plan financially "unsustainable." Bratton, in turn, called Koretz "totally naive."

"What background does he have to make these types of decisions?" Bratton said. "He gets himself a seat on the Public Safety Committee and all of a sudden he fancies himself an expert on these issues."

Koretz, who is no longer on the safety committee, said it is not naive to keep the city fiscally solvent. He defended his credentials, pointing to his two years on the state Assembly's Public Safety Committee and 12 years on the West Hollywood City Council.

L.A. Councilman Greig Smith, a reserve police officer who chairs the council's Public Safety Committee, reacted even more strongly, saying the comments about Koretz crossed a line.

"This is the kind of crap that got him fired in New York," Smith said, referring to Bratton's stint as head of the New York City police. "If he wasn't leaving right now, I think he'd find himself in a fight he didn't want. Mr. Koretz was elected by the people of his district to represent them and to speak for them."

Villaraigosa is more than three-fourths of the way toward his goal of adding 1,000 officers to the LAPD, which has been hovering at roughly 10,000 officers. If he reaches his goal, the department would have 10,181 officers, according to the mayor's office.

This year's budget crisis forced Villaraigosa to retrench, hiring only enough police to replace those who leave.

Koretz has argued that city officials have become too fixated on the number 10,000. The department could stop hiring and keep just as many officers on the street by moving police out of desk jobs that could be filled more cheaply by civilians, Koretz said.

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