Nearly 90 Los Angeles police officers will be pulled off the streets and put to work running a new jail facility that has been unused for more than a year because of staffing shortages, according to a recent decision by LAPD officials.
The reassignments will allow the jail to open by early February and are the culmination of months of debate within the LAPD on how to solve an increasingly desperate pinch: The $74-million, 172,000-square-foot Metropolitan Detention Center requires far more people to operate than the dilapidated, aging structure it will replace.
A citywide hiring freeze has prevented the department from hiring more jailers and forced it to keep the gleaming structure shuttered since May 2009.
Under increasing pressure to close the old jail because of safety and health risks, police officials presented the City Council and Police Commission with a plan to free up some of the roughly 100 additional jailers needed to run the new facility by closing some small satellite jails in police stations. At the time, there was discussion of granting the LAPD a reprieve from the hiring freeze, but an exemption was never approved.
With the city's fiscal woes deepening, the department acted on its own and devised a plan to use officers as jailers, Assistant Chief Michel Moore said. The department still plans to shutter four of its small jails.
The plan calls for 83 officers who have completed their first, probationary year in the field to be assigned to jail duty. Five sergeants also will be pulled from their regular assignments and sent to the jail as supervisors. The group will spend six months working at the detention center before being replaced by another platoon of young cops.
The move could be risky. The department is struggling to keep officers on city streets as it forces hundreds of them to take time off from work each month in lieu of paying them overtime. This loss of more officers, while small in a department of nearly 10,000 cops, will be felt, officers said.
And it's a move not likely to be well received by Angelenos, said Paul M. Weber, president of the union representing rank-and-file officers.
"When these officers were hired, the public expected they would be out on the streets protecting them, not stuck in a jail baby-sitting prisoners," Weber said. "That is not why taxpayers spent a sizable amount of money to recruit and train these men and women."
Alan Skobin, a member of the Police Commission, which oversees the LAPD, agreed but, like others, sees no other way out.
"We are playing the hand we were dealt," he said. "We're operating out of a condemned, aging building, while we have one across the street built to modern standards that has been sitting empty for over a year…. The last ones who want to use officers in the jail are the commission and the chief of police, but there are no viable choices."
Moore, Skobin and others said that with the number of jailers dwindling due to attrition, the department soon would have had to reassign officers to jail duty even if the old jail remained open.
Several police officials quietly questioned why the council has not exempted jailers from the requirement that civilian city employees take two unpaid furlough days each month. If they were allowed to take only one furlough day, said the officials, who requested that their names not be used because of the sensitivity of the situation, the number of officers needed in the jails would decrease dramatically.
In an e-mail, Councilman Grieg Smith, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, called the decision "most disagreeable." He said he was trying to drum up support for a plan that would merge the city's general services police force with the LAPD and allow the department to use security guards from the small agency in the jails.
On Thursday, jailers were planning to gather outside the new facility to protest the use of officers.
"It makes no sense. During this budget crunch, we should be saving money and getting more cops out on the streets, not putting them in jobs done by civilians elsewhere," Dave Yuen, a principal detention officer, said in a prepared statement. Yuen will begin training officers in coming weeks to work the jail assignment.