The LAPD requires that each division have a certain number of officers on street patrol at any given time, a computer-generated figure determined by an individual division's needs that day.
But some officers have reported to the LAPD's inspector general — an independent watchdog — that there's not always enough personnel available to meet that mandate, according to officials from the union that represents rank-and-file officers.
They allege that some station commanders have instructed officers to fill out logs that show them as being on patrol when they, in fact, are in a station performing other jobs or in some cases not even on duty. The result, the union officials said, are "ghost cars" — cars that are reported out in the field but really aren't.
Cmdr. Andrew Smith confirmed that the department was investigating what he described as "anecdotal" reports of the so-called ghost cars, but said it had not yet determined whether the allegations were true or how widespread they might be.
"It is something that we were made aware of and we are looking into it," he said. "If it had happened in the past, it's not something that is acceptable and won't be happening anymore."
Smith said the department has maintained its mandated seven-minute or less response time to calls.
Mark Cronin, a director of the Los Angeles police union, said his organization had fielded complaints from officers and was forwarding them to the LAPD inspector general for investigation.
The inspector general, Alex Bustamante, declined to comment. But a senior LAPD official, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, confirmed that the inspector general is investigating the issue, and is expected to release a report on it in the coming weeks.
Cronin said that inflating the number of officers on patrol raised serious safety concerns for the public, and officers who are actually on patrol. Fewer officers on the street, he said, means less backup should something go wrong.
"The reality is that it's a huge officer-safety risk," he told The Times. "It's just a matter of when."
Smith said officer safety was "always paramount" with LAPD Chief Charlie Beck. Part of that, he said, was ensuring that "we have enough officers in the field deployed."
It was unclear what divisions were included in the allegations. But Cronin said some would "stop and start" the practice, depending on their deployment levels.
When officers are assigned to a patrol car, they log into that car's computer to share basic information, including who is in the vehicle and the type of unit available. At various points throughout the day, that information is forwarded to department higher-ups to show the number of officers on patrol and how many calls they are handling.
Some officers have said that they have been instructed to log other officers in, Cronin said. Those other officers may be on vacation, out sick or taking forced time off to reduce overtime hours for the cash-strapped department, he said.
In recent public comments to the Police Commission, Cronin suggested the allegedly inflated patrol numbers have resulted, in part, from the department's inability in recent years to pay officers cash for overtime. Instead, officers have accrued large banks of unpaid overtime, and department officials have forced hundreds of them to take time off each month in an effort to keep the overtime banks from ballooning.
With fewer officers available to work and station commanders under pressure to meet the mandated staffing limits, the patrol numbers were fabricated, Cronin said.
Smith acknowledged that officers have been forced to take time off because of the overtime issue. But, he said, after looking at the numbers of officers deployed in recent days, "it seems we have many more officers in the field working patrol."