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L.A. police funding must be a priority

Neighborhood security must be sustained, however unfair the channeling of funds might seem in a time of layoffs and pay cuts.

September 15, 2009

The city of Los Angeles will not be getting the revenue it needs over the coming months to sustain its current level of spending, and it must cut back. That reality has become painful for employees who have devoted themselves to public service and now face mandatory furloughs or even layoffs.

The prospect of losing a city job is especially bitter when one job is pitted against another. Why, for example, should civilian employees suffer disproportionately under a system that may see public safety workers left relatively unscathed?

The hard answer is that although fairness to employees is important -- it recognizes years of service, rewards flexibility in bargaining and secures a stable workforce, all of which are good for the city -- fairness in city labor decisions ultimately must take a back seat to the overriding best interests of the city.

After years of toying with expanding the size of the Los Angeles Police Department, advancing and then retreating when a limited funding stream evaporated or the economy turned sour, Los Angeles has begun to make some headway. It has been an important development. A growing LAPD, together with smart deployment decisions, have helped to keep crime in check and to improve the working relationship between the department and the neighborhoods it serves. A larger number of officers helps the LAPD to move away from the "occupying force"-style of policing that once prevailed in Los Angeles, keeping some communities secure and others geared for confrontation.

Allowing the LAPD to drop in size would be a setback for Los Angeles. If the city can afford to hold steady, until good times return and expansion can begin again, it should.

The police officers union argues that it makes no sense to consider furloughs for officers already serving to save enough money to keep hiring. On the contrary; it makes eminent sense. Even if furloughs keep the city from utilizing the full department today, the hiring will mean that a full force, and not a diminished LAPD, will patrol the streets once better budget times return. Furloughed officers, moreover, can be recalled to duty in an emergency.

Other city departments may have to take deeper cuts to keep the city properly patrolled. It is harsh, but it may still be the best course. It is unfair -- all the more unfair because with better resource management, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa could have planned better for the current crisis and taken steps that would have made sacrifice more bearable, and because police hiring is widely seen as a political benefit to the mayor. That may be, but it is still the right move.

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