Editorial

Chief Beck needs to explain why we need thousands of extra cops

Violent crime is rising in Los Angeles, as it is in every major California city. The population of L.A. is rising as well, with 136,000 more Angelenos in 2014 than just four years earlier.

Yet the city's budget has room for just under 10,000 officers in the L.A. Police Department. That's not enough, and it's high time for City Hall to face that fact, Police Chief Charlie Beck said this month.

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Beck is correct that the LAPD is on the lean side, at least when compared with other U.S. cities of similar size. The department has tried to compensate by deploying officers in smarter ways. One example is how it responded last year to an uptick in serious crime by increasing crime-suppression teams in hot spots across the city. Although the crime rate hasn't fallen, felony arrests have doubled and gun seizures have nearly tripled.

The chief is also correct that city leaders should start thinking about whether the police force is keeping pace with the city's growing demand for public safety services. At a recent City Council Public Safety Committee hearing, he suggested that the department needs 12,500 officers — a figure his predecessor, William Bratton, often cited too.

OK, but now what? Beck must do more than throw out a figure. Where's the evidence that 12,500 is the right size for the city? Why not 15,000 or 25,000? Or 5,000, for that matter? Simply comparing the number of cops per capita or per square mile in L.A. with the higher figures in Chicago, New York or Philadelphia doesn't recognize that L.A. has a geography, demography and history that makes it unlike any other city on Earth.

Mayor Eric Garcetti's administration agrees the force ought to be larger but doesn't have a specific number in mind. Right now, the administration would be happy to reach 10,000 — a milestone set a decade ago that has proven elusive even when the funding was available. The department has about 9,920 officers. With 450 of them retiring or quitting every year, it's a struggle to even maintain that level, much less grow. What the city can do is to hire more civilians for jail duties to free up police officers for patrolling, which the mayor will propose in the next budget.

In other words, the “how big should it be” discussion is academic at this point. The police and fire departments already command more than 71% of the city's budget. Adding even 100 more officers, whose salaries alone start at $57,000, would be quite a strain on a city that can't adequately maintain its sidewalks, streets and trees.

But if the city needs a bigger force to be livable in the future, Beck ought to start making the case now. Then city leaders and residents can decide if it's a commitment they are willing to make.

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A version of this article appeared in print on February 28, 2016, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Is the LAPD big enough?" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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