In weighing police pay hike, L.A. leaders need the facts

Are LAPD officers really underpaid?

After years of living beyond its means and making commitments that resulted in crushing financial obligations, Los Angeles may soon be back on its feet. Officials have forecast that the city could be deficit-free by 2018. The deficit has been an “albatross around the neck of the city,” City Administrator Miguel Santana wrote in a report last year. It has required the slashing of basic city services, such as park maintenance, policing and street paving. It has prevented L.A. from investing in its aging infrastructure or buying the equipment and technology to deliver services more efficiently.

But that forecast assumes no increases in pay or benefits for city employees. Now, officials are meeting the first real test of their resolve. The City Council will soon vote on a deal with the police officers' union that is the most generous of the labor contracts negotiated under the leadership of Mayor Eric Garcetti. Faced with a backlash from the police union and concern that violent crime is on the rise after years of decline, he has agreed to give raises totaling 8.2% over four years plus a $500 increase in officers' uniform allowances and a $60 per month increase in their healthcare subsidy.

Is that reasonable? Is the proposed contract overly generous, or are the increases necessary to recruit and retain police officers? It's impossible to know because the city's process is too opaque and its facts too carefully massaged. Unless and until City Council members get clear, honest answers about the true cost of the contract, the assumptions on which it is based and the impact it will have on the city's structural deficit, they should reject the agreement.

City officials who were involved in the negotiation say, for instance, that the contract will cost $157 million over four years. But that's misleading because it doesn't represent the actual impact on the city's bottom line. Pension and retirement expenses will add $53 million more, bringing the total to $210 million. The annual cost in 2017-18 alone is roughly $126 million — more than it will cost to run the city attorney's office this year.

Garcetti has argued that raises are necessary if the Los Angeles Police Department is to attract and retain the best police officers. But it's unclear whether there are too few recruits because salaries are inadequate or for some other reason, and the department has not produced figures on how many officers are leaving mid-career or why they're leaving. Throughout the negotiations, the union has argued that officers in Los Angeles are paid less than their counterparts in other cities. But are they really? It's true that the starting base salary for an officer entering the Police Academy is $57,420, which is lower than at some other departments in the region. But pay increases come quickly at the LAPD and there is more opportunity for advancement. What's more, such base salaries do not include the bonuses and other extra payments that LAPD officers are entitled to. For instance, officers receive a $1,000-a-year uniform allowance (which would be increased to $1,500 under the proposed contract, and which officers can pocket if they don't spend it on their uniforms), and they can further boost their pay with bonuses for working on patrol, for marksmanship, for serving on the force for more than 10 years, and for obtaining advanced law enforcement certifications, among other things. So even though the starting salary for a Police Officer II — the rank that makes up most of the patrol force — is around $65,000, the average pay for that rank is actually $93,000, and some officers earn up to $137,000. The City Council should request a comparison with actual salaries — not base salaries — in other cities.

Officials have suggested that the proposed raises are needed because officers haven't had a raise in years. But officers got a 2% cost of living raise last spring, and many get automatic “step” raises each year.

It's also important to consider the effect this deal will have on negotiations with other employee unions. The city's 20,000 civilian employees are expected to lobby for comparable raises. Firefighters have already received salary parity with police officers, so the City Council should anticipate that they'll be asked to give 8.2% raises to firefighters as well.

Public safety should be the city's top priority, and L.A. should pay well to recruit and retain men and women with the passion, skills and temperament for the job. But the mayor's office and the City Council need to be honest with the public about the true cost of public safety and what it will mean for the city's financial future.

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