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The Blue Bottom Line 

Egos overcome reason in debate over more cops

Thursday, Jun 12 2003
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It’s all over, including most of the shouting. The L.A. city budget has been revised and officially approved by the City Council. Mayor James Hahn and LAPD Chief William Bratton are not one bit happy about it. The rest of us should be unhappy as well — for different reasons.

For those who’ve not followed the minutiae of L.A. politics, a quick recap: In mid-May, Hahn presented his $5.1 billion city budget. While there was some strategic belt tightening, and a few new expenditures, there were no surprises in the 164-page, glossy-printed summary of the cash-flow plan for the period that begins in July. In terms of added costs, the council designated $7.3 million extra for the ongoing library-renovation project and another $6.5 million for refurbishing the Griffith Observatory, a project that should total out at $63 million. And an extra $18 million to recruit and hire 320 new police officers, with another $4.2 million slated for the LAPD’s reorganization plan, a departmental restructuring strategy that Bratton and his command staff have been laboring over since the beginning of the year.

Even in these bleak-budget times, the police expense seemed reasonable, since it is widely acknowledged that the LAPD is too absurdly understaffed to adequately protect and serve. Of the nation’s five largest cities, Los Angeles has by far the worst cop-to-resident ratio. New York, Chicago and Philadelphia have one sworn officer to every 220 citizens, while Los Angeles weighs in at one cop per 440 residents. In 1998, when the department’s numbers were at their highest (before the Rampart scandal caused a gusher of retirements and resignations), the LAPD’s 9,800 officers were still deemed insufficient. Now, with only 9,100 in uniform, Los Angeles possesses the slowest emergency-response time of all major metropolitan areas, a situation that Chief Bratton says he can improve, but not fix until he gets additional bodies.

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Bratton has already proved he could do more with less, managing to lower the city’s murder rate by more than 25 percent over this time last year, when L.A. led the country in killings. By all accounts, he’s done so by policing smarter, not harder, steering clear of the heavy-handed tactics that have gotten previous LAPD administrations in trouble in the past. Yet while overall homicide stats have dropped, bloodletting in the city’s poorer neighborhoods remains a nightly occurrence. As a result, even longtime police critics agreed that more cops on patrol was a matter of crucial importance. “It’s pointless to talk about community policing when we don’t have enough police to do it,” said civil rights attorney Connie Rice (who will soon head up a new Rampart probe panel). Homeboy Industries head Father Greg Boyle expressed a similar view. “When more police are on the street, kids are less apt to shoot at each other,” he said. “The city’s response to gangs has to include prevention, intervention and enforcement. Right now we need to shore up the enforcement piece so that our streets can return to some reasonable state of calm and peace, and the prevention and intervention can proceed.”

When Hahn’s budget came up for a vote, the City Council’s budget committee approved most of it without a blink. But before returning the final numbers to the mayor, the committee snipped 35 line items out of the general fund, transferring them to the “we’ll think about these later” column known as the “unappropriated balance.”

Most of the 35 articles yanked were unremarkable. The council put off re-paving 36 miles of the city’s sidewalks originally slated for repair, saving $4.8 million. (Why it costs the city $133,000 to repair a mile of concrete sidewalk is a question best left for another day.) It declined to pay for a new assistant general manager for the L.A. Zoo, saving another $194,175. Five miles of L.A.’s unimproved streets won’t be paved right away either (adding $905,000 in savings). And a $2.5 million expense listed mysteriously as “petroleum products” was summarily excised.

And . . . the council decided to cut all the extra money intended for the cops.

 

Hahn and Bratton were stunned. Thus far, most council members had been decidedly friendly on public-safety issues. In fact, since Bratton was appointed chief last fall, only two other major questions had come up, and in both cases the council had given the police what they wanted: The council agreed to buy pricey new gas masks and protective suits for first responders to wear in case of a biochemical attack and supported the department’s decision to stop answering unconfirmed burglar-alarm calls. Although there was a brief kerfuffle over the latter when alarm companies deluged their customers with the hysterical contention that citizens would soon be raped and murdered in their beds, eventually reason and the chief prevailed.

In justifying its born-again enthusiasm for fiscal restraint, the council stated that the mayor’s financial people were wrong in asserting that they had produced a balanced budget, and that its own analysts predicted a $280 million deficit in the next few years — hence the cuts. Yet, as the 35 excised items added up to only $69 million, the Mayor’s Office expressed bafflement. “So what are they saying?” muttered a member of Hahn’s senior staff. “That a $280 million deficit is bad, but a $211 million one is acceptable?”

Bratton and Hahn took their case to the public in a joint interview with KPCC’s Larry Mantle, during which Hahn threw a punch at new Councilman (and former chief) Bernard Parks, whom he accused of causing the officer shortfall in the first place. Bratton compared himself to Eisenhower on D-Day being called home for fiscal reasons as his boats approached Normandy. Then, hearing the show in his car, Councilman Jack Weiss called in to say that the mayor and the chief were like the movie characters Thelma and Louise “taking the city over a cliff.”

Over the next few weeks, the gap (and the rhetoric) between council and mayor continued to worsen. Hahn offered a compromise budget in which the funds for the extra cops were gained by cutting 3 percent out of all city agencies, except for police, fire and sanitation. Out of the question, huffed the council, pointing to state-budget cuts that would already reduce library and park allocations to bone level. The council passed its own budget, which the mayor vetoed just before 5 p.m. on Wednesday, June 4. It took the council less than 20 minutes to override the veto. And then, once the smoke and the hyperbole dissipated, three things became clear:

1. If money was the issue, there was one obvious place to look for extra funds: salaries. In a series of pre-negotiated contracts, all city employees — both unionized workers and the city’s 9,000 nonunion employees — will be getting a nice, fat cost-of-living increase. The official California cost-of-living adjustment — which is calculated according to the rise in basic living expenses — hovers around 2 percent. However, the city employees (the police likely included) are scheduled for a 4 percent raise — twice what is mandated by inflation. Meanwhile, most Californians working in the private sector are getting no raises at all. In fact, last month Time magazine ran a cover story detailing how millions of Americans were taking pay cuts, to avoid being laid off. And Governor Gray Davis has dumped cost-of-living adjustments altogether for those on SSI, CalWorks or other forms of public assistance.

2. It was never really about the police, it was about something else. In July, when newly elected members come onto the council, a new president will be chosen, important committee assignments will change, and political alliances will shift. Conventional wisdom has it that Alex Padilla will remain as leader. Privately, veteran council watchers say that votes will divide between ‰ Padilla and Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, and that, as factions battled for position, the police issue became an unlucky mouse caught between fighting cats.

3. Amid the acrimony, one vital detail got pushed aside: Even more than the $18 million to hire 320 new officers, the LAPD desperately needed (and would have settled for) the funds for its reorganization plan, which — at $4.2 million — was chump change. In the past, the department had always fixed problems with Band-Aids and patches, never breaking apart the administrative structure in order to rebuild it better anew. Under Bratton, a real restructuring has finally been undertaken, but extra cash is needed to jump-start the plan. “I think if they’d asked us to break out the reorganization money, the council would have done it,” said a council staffer. “But nobody asked, because, in the end, it seemed the mayor just wanted to win it all.”

So, in the end, nobody won. Not the mayor, not the council, not the LAPD — and certainly not the people of Los Angeles.

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