Police and Politics

Months of political posturing and postponing have landed the issue of a larger Los Angeles police force in the middle of the mayoral campaign.

The size of the Los Angeles Police Department demands a thorough public debate. But as the sides were drawn Thursday the focus may be on whether Los Angeles can get something for nothing. And delay will probably mean that the city will get just that--nothing--for months to come.

The department, currently authorized 7,000 uniformed officers, is too small to police 3 million residents and 465 square miles. But proposals for adding 500 to 1,500 new officers have been stalled by debates in the Los Angeles City Council over how to pay for them.

Mayor Tom Bradley wants to pay for 1,000 more officers with a property tax that would cost the average homeowner less than $5 per month. Councilman Zev Yaroslavky would build the force more slowly, starting with 500 new officers at a cost to homeowners of $2.50 a month--a proposal that we support. On Thursday Councilman John Ferraro, a candidate for Bradley's job, said that the city could get 1,300 more officers by cutting all but essential areas of the city budget by 1% to 2% and abolishing the Board of Public Works. Ferraro's proposal will be priced out in the days to come to see precisely what services he would cut and who would miss those services. But its most immediate effect will be further delay, and time is running out for a decision.

The City Council, which has spent months debating a number of proposals, must make up its mind about property taxes by Feb. 13, the deadline for placing the matter on the June 4 ballot so that voters can approve a plan or reject it.

Financing is not the only issue that threatens further delay. Some supporters of an expanded police force want more officers but fear that their areas might not get what they consider their fair share.

Deployment, the formula by which street-patrol officers are assigned, has been debated for months--prompted for the most part by the city's two largest community groups. UNO, the United Neighborhoods Organization, represents 93,000 families in East Los Angeles. SCOC, the South-Central Organizing Committee, represents 40,000 families in that section of the city. They want greater weight given to crimes that take lives than crimes that take property; stereos, they argue, are replaceable--people are not.

The Police Commission has postponed a discussion of deployment, originally scheduled for this week, until next Tuesday. A City Council committee wants an independent study of the formula. A review that did not create new frustrations by dragging on and on could defuse some of the emotional issues.

UNO and the organizing committee seem prepared to withhold support of any property tax until there is a decision on the formula. Changes in allocation of officers could stir up rivalries that have pitted higher-income areas that suffer more property crime, such as the San Fernando Valley, against lower-income areas that suffer more violent crime.

Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates added fuel to those rivalries when he chided the two organizations for their threat to withhold support. His remarks were not political, he said--but everything is political in a mayoral race.

Political campaigns can crystallize issues and lead to action. Or, as is possible in this case, they can so complicate matters that the City Council will be too busy debating to meet the Feb. 13 deadline for voting. That must not happen.

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