Crime & Courts

L.A. police union hires PR firm in bid to win pay raises

L.A. police officers' union turns to PR firm Burson-Marsteller in its bid to win pay raises

The union representing rank-and-file Los Angeles police officers has hired a high-profile communications firm to spearhead a campaign aimed at persuading residents — and by extension elected officials — that officers deserve pay raises.

The move comes after months of stalled contract negotiations with city officials and as other city employees have agreed to contracts that denied them salary increases this fiscal year.

At a meeting earlier this week, Police Protective League officials introduced the new public relations team to union delegates, who represent all the LAPD's various patrol divisions and specialized units. Delegates were told that as a first step, the firm had polled about 1,000 Angelenos on their opinions about LAPD officers, their pay and other related issues, union officials and delegates said.

Craig Lally, the newly appointed league president, and other officials declined to discuss the specific results of the poll. They strongly disagreed, however, with one delegate who attended the meeting and summarized what was said for others. The officer wrote that the "result of the poll is that the public is not with us on our contract issues."

Union officials said the poll found that people were generally split or undecided on the question of whether LAPD officers should receive pay raises as part of a new contract. When told, among other things, that LAPD officers were paid less than officers in surrounding departments and that officers were leaving for higher-paying jobs with other agencies, those polled were more sympathetic to the idea of a raise, union officials said.

After receiving questions from The Times about the poll, union officials sent a message to officers, saying the purpose of the survey had been "to establish a baseline for all of our communications moving forward."

"While we are still digesting the results of the poll, early findings show that residents overwhelmingly care about three things: increased violent crime, officer compensation, and recruitment and retention of our City's officers," they wrote. "Importantly, data showed that the majority of residents do not side with the City and we have a clear path to obtain favorable and equitable treatment."

Mayor Eric Garcetti said through an aide that the city has negotiated "fair and responsible" contracts with other unions and will continue working with the league on reaching "a fair agreement that the city can afford."

"There is strong public support for Mayor Garcetti's fair and fiscally responsible approach, which has helped improve our city's credit ratings and save taxpayer resources for more city services," mayoral spokesman Jeff Millman said in a statement.

Specifics of how the union plans to get its message out have not yet been decided, Lally said. Next month union and city negotiators are scheduled to meet with an independent mediator who will try to help the two sides reach a deal. The two sides have dug in, taking positions that seem irreconcilable: With the city still trying to recover from years of financial crisis, Garcetti has said the city will not grant raises this year — a stance the police have rebuffed as unacceptable.

In July, after months of talks, union and city negotiators agreed to a one-year deal that did not include a salary increase but would have significantly increased the amount of cash available to pay officers for overtime. Officers voted to reject the deal. Nevertheless, city leaders went ahead with a larger overtime budget and agreed to hike starting salaries by 15%, from $49,924 a year to $57,420.

Officers make $60,500 after graduating from the academy. Veteran patrol officers currently can earn a maximum of around $100,000 annually, including bonuses and longevity pay, according to city budget officials. Lieutenants can reach nearly $145,000.

Starting salary is $68,200 in Beverly Hills and is nearly $69,500 in Santa Monica, according to information listed on those cities' websites.

LAPD officers have been working without a contract since July, when the existing three-year deal expired. Under that agreement, officers were awarded several small pay increases of 1% or 2%.

The decision to bring on Burson-Marsteller, the communications firm, marks the latest in a series of shake-ups for the league, as it has struggled through internal disagreements over the best strategy for extracting a raise from the city and other issues. The union dropped a lobbying firm it had hired to help negotiate a contract and also fired its longtime public relations firm in favor of Burson-Marsteller.

The demand for a raise comes at a precarious time for the union. The recent controversial killings by police of unarmed men here, as well as in New York and Ferguson, Mo., have brought harsh scrutiny on police and complicated the union's effort to win sympathy for officers. Also, a Times investigation last year highlighted the problem of LAPD officers who abuse the city's injury leave policy. And, in light of the mayor's refusal to give raises this year to firefighters and other city employees, the union must work delicately to convince the public that police should receive preferential treatment.

City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana would not discuss the sticking points keeping the two sides from reaching agreement. But in interviews last year, he said the city was avoiding raises in an effort to keep a lid on rapidly growing pension costs. "The issues haven't really changed," Santana said this week.

The city's contribution for police and firefighter retirement benefits has grown from $175 million in 2005 to $626 million last year. Santana expects that figure to reach $710 million by 2016, further hampering the city's ability to provide services.

City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who spent 15 years as an LAPD officer before being elected, said that although he believes officers deserve a raise, it is not feasible given the city's shaky finances.

The proposed one-year deal, Buscaino said, was "reasonable."

joel.rubin@latimes.com

david.zahniser@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
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