By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Nothing captures the city at its abject worst, however, like homicide. If you know where a murder occurred, you can spend months associating that place with death. If a killing happens nearby, you start to worry about your loved ones — where they park, where they walk, where they use their ATM card. In 2006, Los Angeles experienced a killing every 18 hours, from a 49-year-old homeless woman stomped to death on Skid Row to a father of three shot in Mar Vista by a man burglarizing his car.
Had the homeless woman not slept on the sidewalk, she might have survived. Had the burglar in Mar Vista been apprehended for a previous crime, three children would still have a father. But then things get trickier. Who, after all, expected a 78-year-old man in Pacoima to murder his landlord?
Los Angeles in many ways turned away from the issue of public safety in 2006, with the civic elite devoting far more energy toward schools and the battle for power between the mayor and Los Angeles Unified School District. Villaraigosa and the Los Angeles City Council never backed Bratton in his bid to beef up the LAPD on a scale that would dramatically reshape the city. The council paid a consultant nearly $600,000 to develop an anti-gang strategy comprised of after-school and gang-prevention programs. And they settled for incremental fixes that will take years to complete and even then achieve only a fraction of Bratton’s original goal.
Bratton still believes that, with 12,500 officers, Los Angeles could cut its homicide rate by more than half, taking the number of murders below 200 per year. “I have no doubt about it,” he declares.
Imagine an L.A. with only 200 murders. South Los Angeles, in particular, would be a different place, capable of attracting jobs and housing to its barren boulevards. The northeast San Fernando Valley would be more peaceful, as would the rougher neighborhoods that ring downtown — Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights, Cypress Park, Pico-Union.
The city’s veteran politicians say they don’t ever expect Bratton to reach his hiring goal of 3,000 more officers. Former councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, who specialized in cops and budgets, says that goal would require a commitment to growth over 10 to 15 years, impossible in a city dependent on economic swings, where elected officials regularly cycle in and out, and an earthquake can upend every priority.
Then there’s resistance to every budget cut. When former mayor James Hahn tried to merge the tiniest departments — including the Commission on the Status of Women, the Human Relations Commission and the Commission on Children, Youth and Their Families — other council members rebelled. The savings would have been enough to hire just 10 police officers.
“We said we were going to put them all in one nice new department and save some money, and all hell broke loose,” recalls Miscikowski, who left office in 2005.
So Bratton is left to play whack-a-mole, sending a swarm of officers to one sector of the city, only to see a problem crop up elsewhere. In 2003, he moved 150 officers into South Los Angeles, reducing the number of murders by 22 percent in a single year. When attention turned toward Skid Row last year, Bratton moved 50 extra officers there, cutting crime in the LAPD's Central Division by a huge margin. Today, the hot spot is Harbor Gateway, where gang shootings left a neighborhood under siege.
Bratton is quick to point out big differences between New York and Los Angeles: L.A. covers 472 square miles and has a gang problem more lethal than New York’s, even at the height of that city’s crack epidemic. And there are those staffing disparities: New York has one officer for every 228 residents; LAPD has one officer for every 426.
“The patient is different. The illnesses are different,” says Bratton. “The problem here in L.A. is, I’m taking a lot longer because I have less medicine to work with.”
PUBLIC CRIME, PRIVATE CRIME
Number crunchers at City Hall rely on a simple calculus when talking about expanding the LAPD: For each police officer added, the city must find $100,000 — not just for the year, but for every year the officer is employed. With pay raises and accrued benefits, that $100,000 slowly balloons.
Villaraigosa made significant headway last year, persuading the City Council to approve a plan for hiring 1,000 officers over five years. But the plan is heavily back-loaded, adding only 135 of the 1,000 officers this fiscal year. Much of the hiring won’t happen until 2009 and 2010, well into Villaraigosa’s second term as mayor and, possibly, his first term as governor. If history is any guide, the plan could easily be scuttled by other political realities — an unexpected and costly scandal, an economic recession, a new City Council with new priorities.
Even if Villaraigosa succeeds, the city would need $200 million more per year to reach Bratton’s ultimate goal. Would such a cost even be worth it? Los Angeles County, for example, spends $200 million just to keep L.A. County–USC Medical Center — which treats many gunshot wounds — open for 10 weeks. L.A. Unified could use $200 million to hire more than 3,200 beginning teachers and reduce the number of students per class. Maybe such a move would keep more children from dropping out. But would it keep them from crime?
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