Editorial

Busting LAPD's 'ghost car' falsifications

LAPD officials' false reporting of patrols, 'ghost cars,' has to stop. The agency has to be held responsible

An Inspector General's report released Friday confirmed what many Los Angeles Police Department insiders have been complaining about for months: Officers have routinely falsified records to make it appear that they were patrolling the streets, when in fact they were doing paperwork, working desk jobs or handling other duties at stations.

The investigation found false reports of patrols — so-called “ghost cars” — in at least five of the department's 21 geographic areas. The falsifications were carried out over multiple shifts by officers of various ranks, but the sole purpose was to make it appear that station commanders were meeting staffing levels set by a computer program and rigidly watched by department brass. As Alex Bustamante, the LAPD's inspector general, wrote, commanding officers are responsible for 100% compliance with daily patrol staffing levels, and when they fail (or are unable) to meet that goal, they must answer to top leaders of the department. Union officials said captains are under “intense pressure” to hit their patrol numbers, and that urgency trickles down to lower-level supervisors who order officers to fill out logs showing they are on patrol when they are not.

The Inspector General's revelation is troubling for a number of reasons. For one thing, it's dishonest. False data lead city leaders and the public to believe the streets are more heavily patrolled than they really are. That undermines our sense of how safe we are, and also influences policy decisions on, for example, whether the city should hire more civilians for administrative tasks or keep hiring officers. And if supervisors can justify lying about staffing levels in order to keep the bosses happy, what other transgressions or omissions will they allow?

Most worrisome is that this is the second report in recent months to conclude that the LAPD has been relying on bad data and inaccurate reporting. A Times investigation in August found that the department understated violent crime in the city by misclassifying nearly 1,200 violent crimes as minor offenses during a one-year period. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck chalked that up to human error, although department insiders said deliberate miscoding had become common as captains and other supervisors were — again — under intense pressure to meet crime-reduction targets set by the brass.

Together, these investigations suggest that Chief Beck and his administration are so focused on maintaining good metrics that they're ignoring what's happening on the ground. Or worse, that they've created a culture in which officers and supervisors feel they have to cook the books to succeed. Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Police Commission must hold the LAPD responsible for these specific lapses, but they also must determine whether there are deeper problems within the department.

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