Earlier this month protesters descended on downtown Los Angeles after Donald Trump was elected president. Few, it seems, were surprised by that (or by subsequent protests) in a state where 61.5 percent of voters went for Hillary Clinton. What was surprising to most of the planet, even to the candidate himself, was that Trump won.
That might have put the Los Angeles Police Department at a disadvantage.
The night after the election, the impromptu demonstration saw protesters shut down the 101 freeway, confront police and vandalize buildings, TV news vans and police cars. The next night, an undercover officer was reportedly punched and beaten by a pair of demonstrators. The Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents rank-and-file cops, said the department's staffing affected officer safety and was unacceptable. “We were caught with our pants down,” says LAPPL president Craig Lally.
“The LAPD made every effort to redeploy the resources necessary to protect the areas affected by the demonstrations and quickly adapt to the changing circumstances,” LAPD spokesman Josh Rubenstein stated in an email. “The department's quick action to redeploy resources, coupled with proactive engagement with the protesters, avoided substantial property damage and injuries.
“The LAPD remains committed and prepared to adapt to any changing circumstances should protests continue and encourages protesters to exercise their rights of expression in a safe and lawful manner.”
LAPPL president Lally claims there's more to the story: Los Angeles police staffing overall is too low. He says the department is staffed at about 150 officers below the 10,000 mark, a goal then–Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa vowed to surpass during his tenure. Villaraigosa did, in fact, exceed that mark, but staffing has since receded as a result of attrition (retirements, resignations, transfers), according to Lally. In the meantime, L.A.'s population keeps growing, with the state of California estimating that L.A. is now home to 4 million people (the official population is 3,971,883). New York City, with a population of 8.5 million, has 34,500 officers. You read that right. L.A., a city with a little less than half the population of New York, has less than one-third of the officers employed by the Big Apple. “We're drastically short,” Lally says.
The issue is exacerbated because Los Angeles is a huge city with 469 square miles to cover. L.A.'s size is one reason LAPD has been so reliant on helicopters over the years. The publication Governing says L.A. has about 25.7 officers per 10,000 residents, which is not the worst police coverage in the nation, but it's not the best. Washington, D.C., has a whopping 65.6 per 10,000 people, thanks to the presence of the federal government; Chicago has 44.2, New York 41.8, San Francisco 27.5 and San Diego 14.2, Governing states.
The department isn't reporting how many officers were on the street during the Trump protests, but such events often draw at least a few hundred cops from throughout the department. Critics say this means that neighborhood police stations (the LAPD has 21 divisions from San Pedro to Sylmar) already short on badges sometimes are stuck with just a few patrol cars in the event of a major incident.
For example, the West Los Angeles Division has a baseline of seven patrol cars on the streets per shift. Sometimes those efforts are supplemented by gang units and other special operations, and often shifts overlap. But let's say that on a normal shift there are seven two-person cars on the street — a scenario Dorsey says is not unusual.
“I'm hearing [divisions] are having a hard time staffing black-and-whites for PM watch and morning watch,” Dorsey says. “It's not uncommon for the LAPD to have detectives put on a uniform and go out in the event of a tactical situation” such as a Trump protest. “It gives the illusion that there are plenty of police.”
If an impromptu Trump demonstration breaks out and two or three or more of those two-person units in West L.A. have to rush downtown, the division is left with a thin blue line indeed. If, on that night, there's a home invasion, shooting or violent attack, many of the units still in the division would be tied up with that crime report. Of course, nearby divisions — Pacific, Wilshire, Southwest — could help out, which is often the case, Dorsey says. But those stations might also be sending badges downtown to assist with demonstrations.
During protests, “You're pulling from another part of the city or a bordering division,” she says. “That happens routinely, and officers are not happy about it, and they can't speak on it.”
Lally says he wants the department to better anticipate such demonstrations. When brass knows a protest is on the horizon — and there likely will be many between now and inauguration day, and beyond — it can plan ahead for overtime and creative deployment. “The department was never prepared for a Trump victory,” he says. “There wasn't an operations plan.”
Besides possibly making your neighborhood less safe, thinning out the troops during demonstrations can make cops less safe. Responses to backup calls, for example, could take longer as officers from other divisions have to respond, according to Dorsey. “You might understand there's a grave lack of safety being provided to citizens and officers,” she says.
The staffing problem is why, during big protests, the department will often call a citywide “tactical alert,” an operational mode that keeps all hands on deck past their shifts. About 8,000 of the less than 10,000 officers at the department are available to deploy on the streets for various reasons, Lally says. But on any given day, because of shifts, vacations, desk duty and sick time, only about one third of the force is actually on the street, he says. It's Lally's opinion that too many badges are working administrative jobs. “We're drastically short,” he says.
The city is trying to keep up. It has money to employ a force of slightly above 10,000, but it has had a hard time finding recruits qualified for the job, according to Carl Marziali, a spokesman for Mayor Eric Garcetti. “They are out there aggressively recruiting, and we're short of what we're budgeted for,” he says.
LAPD spokesman Rubenstein suggests that high-profile attacks on police in Dallas and elsewhere this year in the wake of protests against cops who've killed African-Americans could be dissuading qualified candidates from stepping forward.
“Recent events and the ongoing debate concerning policing in America may have affected the number of people interested in joining law enforcement,” he says. “Nevertheless, the LAPD continues to recruit and hire highly qualified men and women who reflect both the diversity of the communities of Los Angeles and the professionalism and effectiveness of the nearly 10,000 officers who currently serve in the LAPD.”
As is stands, it's difficult to find young men and women who can clear the department's hurdles, which include extensive background checks and drug testing. The standards can be difficult in an era when one out of 10 Americans has used marijuana in the last year.
“We actively recruit candidates who have exceptional skills, diverse backgrounds, unimpeachable integrity and an unwavering commitment to public service,” Rubenstein says. “Given the LAPD's high standards, it is always a challenge to find qualified candidates who are able to make the sacrifices necessary to be an LAPD officer.”