Los Angeles' top budget official, Miguel Santana, was walking a fine line this week when he recommended that continued police hiring be delayed until after June 30 so that new officers would be subject to the lower pension tier that voters approved earlier this month. The City Council's line was even finer: Council members voted to hire the April class of officers but agreed to delay further hiring until the new tier takes effect. It was a wise decision that will save money in future years without decreasing the ranks of the Police Department, at least in the long term.
But now that that's done, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa should stick with his general approach to police hiring: Keep it up. The council and the mayor saved a little money last year by slowing the pace; right now, the LAPD is hiring just enough to replace those who retire or leave for other reasons. Critics of the LAPD would like to go further and begin shrinking the department, which along with fire and other public safety services takes up nearly three-quarters of the city's general fund. After all, they say, the city has laid off workers in other departments and furloughed employees citywide, in the process cutting back the services available to residents. Isn't it time to compel the LAPD to shrink in size and absorb the same cutbacks as other departments?
Actually, no. Budgeting should be based on what is best for the city's residents, not on some notion of fairness among the departments on City Hall's organizational chart or among employee bargaining units. And though it is not good for residents to weather cuts in recreation programs or street services, it is even worse, especially during a time of economic stress, to prop up good but less-necessary programs by imposing reductions in public safety. Los Angeles is in the midst of a decades-long process of reforming the LAPD, and an integral part of that reform is getting rid of the department's old occupying-force mentality by continuing to increase the ratio of officers to residents.
There are many reasons that some inside and outside City Hall want to shrink the LAPD's budget by shrinking the ranks of its sworn personnel. In addition to envy from other departments and other labor unions, some bristle at what they see as Villaraigosa's single-minded drive to expand the LAPD by 1,000 officers pursuant to a campaign pledge. Some have a longstanding dislike for police and assert, not without reason, that public safety depends at least as much on other city services, such as libraries, parks, recreation, even planning. Some miss the fact that the LAPD has changed markedly since the Rampart era, with its ranks now better reflecting the demographics of the city and its management now using modernized policing technology and techniques. Some want to stop hiring because they believe that the department as it was led by William J. Bratton and as it is led now by Charlie Beck must be faking its numbers, which show steady and historic reductions in crime. Some see a larger LAPD as a priority belonging to the 1990s or 2000s, and out of date today.
In fact, the LAPD remains Los Angeles' most important priority, as it has been for decades. We can ill-afford the rates of crime and violence that plagued the city when comparatively few officers patrolled the streets. Nor can we afford the abuse of the public that resulted from an understaffed and overstressed department, steeped in an insular us-versus-them culture, that saw nonwhite residents as hostile and responded to incidents with blunt force. We cannot afford the millions of dollars in payouts that taxpayers made to plaintiffs who were beaten, discriminated against or otherwise victimized by the old-style "thin blue line" LAPD. Los Angeles cannot afford to set aside the repair and reform of the department because some years have passed since Rampart, the Rodney King beating and the dozens of other police incidents that sapped the city's quality of life.
As for crime figures, one can quibble with whether rates are as low as they were in 1967 or 1957, but crime has dropped markedly, especially in neighborhoods relatively unaffected by gangs. Of course there is still random violence, and of course there is still gang crime, and it must be met by a better-staffed, better-supervised department than the one that patrolled the city 20 or even 10 years ago.