Statistics, Internal Memos Point to an Erosion of Service in Police Dept.
When the elderly couple heard glass crashing, they immediately called police to report that a burglar was breaking into their home. Police arrived 55 minutes later.
The broken window turned out to be an act of vandalism rather than a burglary attempt. But the couple, who are in their 70s, did not know that at the time and were “scared to death,” according to Councilman Les Robbins.
The incident is one of an increasing number of complaints Robbins and others say they are receiving about poor police service.
Police statistics and internal memos obtained by The Times point to an erosion of service, which city and police officials attribute to an increase in crime, inadequate staffing and, in some cases, questionable deployment of personnel by Police Chief Lawrence Binkley.
Statistics show, for example, that it is taking police longer this year to respond to emergency and non-emergency calls.
A number of memos from high-ranking police officers show that police for nearly a year have not been responding to what they consider minor incidents, that shooting victims may not be contacted “for days and even weeks” because detectives in the violent crimes detail have such a heavy workload, and that most of the detective division “has, or is, reaching a level of non-function.”
Deputy Chief David Dusenbury said in one memo that, in an effort to ease detectives’ workload, he was recommending that investigators begin ignoring such crimes as petty thefts of less than $400 and battery cases in which the victim requires no medical treatment.
Despite complaints about inadequate staffing and the policy of refusing to respond to minor calls, police administrators apparently are encouraging officers to temper what they tell the public.
In a June 12 memo to patrol bureau commanders, Robert Luman, the acting deputy chief for the patrol bureau, wrote: “Some officers are informing citizens that the Police Department is understaffed and, therefore, unable to respond to calls for service. These comments are not appropriate. We should advise citizens that we do all we can to respond to their calls in a timely manner.”
Several police administrators who wrote the memos said they had been told to refer all inquiries to Binkley or Assistant Police Chief Eugene Brizzolara. Binkley and Brizzolara did not return repeated telephone calls over a two-week period.
One of the memos obtained by The Times describes how the Police Department nearly a year ago abandoned its policy of sending out a police unit, when a resident insisted, to investigate minor incidents. Deputy Chief William Ellis said in the memo to Binkley last Aug. 16 that dispatchers were advised to refuse such requests “politely but firmly” if the call is “a minor incident that would not normally require the presence of an officer.” Dispatchers were told to “never deny a unit on a legitimate police problem,” he said in the memo.
And several internal memos from police officials warn that the detective division is so understaffed that it is unable to conduct timely investigations of such crimes as robberies and assaults.
The detectives in the violent crimes detail have such a backlog of cases that “a shooting victim may not be contacted for days and even weeks,” Cmdr. Al Van Otterloo wrote in a May 12 memo to his supervisor, Deputy Chief Dusenbury. “This detail can no longer ensure quality investigations of serious crimes,” Van Otterloo wrote.
The violent crimes detail has five detectives, two under the number budgeted. Each detective is assigned an average of 89 crime reports per month, compared to 58 per month last year, Van Otterloo wrote. As of May 11, the detectives had 440 open cases, more than half dealing with domestic violence and assaults with deadly weapons.
Another memo described how staffing in the forgery detail has been reduced to one investigator, one supervisor, a secretary and a handwriting examiner, from a 1985 staffing level of two sergeants, six investigators, one secretary, one clerk and one handwriting examiner. The memo was written June 5 from Cpl. Frank Householder to Van Otterloo.
In a separate June 5 memo to Van Otterloo, Lt. Robert Forbes wrote that the crimes property section staffing, which includes burglary, auto theft and forgery, “has or is reaching a level of non-function.”
To reduce the workload, Dusenbury, who heads the detective bureau, had recommended in a May 9 memo to Binkley that investigators begin ignoring the following crimes:
* Petty thefts of less than $400;
* Burglaries of less than $500, unless the victim is injured;
* Checks returned for insufficient funds when the amount is under $2,000;
* Malicious mischief cases under $1,000;
* Battery cases in which the victim requires no medical treatment, except gang-related investigations.
If adopted, the recommendations would significantly lower the number of open cases, Dusenbury wrote. If the less serious battery and malicious mischief cases are dropped, for example, the violent crime division’s workload would be cut between 60% and 70%, Dusenbury wrote.
Elected officials say that the most complaints from residents about police service involve slow response time.
Mayor Ernie Kell said he has heard that “in some cases, it’s an hour or two, (before a unit arrives,) and that’s not acceptable.”
Compared to last year, it takes officers longer to respond to emergency and non-emergency calls, according to police statistics obtained through Kell and City Manager James C. Hankla.
In 55.98% of the emergency calls received between Jan. 1 and May 31, police responded in five minutes or less, the statistics showed. But last year, 66.66% of the emergency calls were answered within five minutes.
It took officers 15 minutes or more to respond to about 58% of the non-emergency calls. Last year, response time exceeded 15 minutes in about 46% of those calls.
Councilman Robbins, a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff who represents the northeastern part of Long Beach, said he has been dogged with complaints in recent months from residents who say police are slow to respond.
Officer Larry Chowen, a member of the Police Officers Assn. board of directors, said: “It’s not an unregular deal to have calls that should have a fairly immediate response waiting for more than an hour.” Those sometimes include reports of family fights or “I hear someone screaming,” Chowen said.
Crime 2 1/2 Hours Cold
Last week, for example, Chowen said he was the first to arrive at an armed robbery that was “2 1/2 hours cold.” In another instance, he and his partner answered a call from someone who said he was robbed on the streets. About an hour went by between the time the victim called and the time a dispatcher sent the officers to the home where the victim stopped to call police. “When we came out, he was gone,” Chowen said. The resident told the officers that the victim “got tired of waiting.”
“People are saying, ‘Where is my policeman? I’ve been waiting for two hours,” Chowen said.
Elected officials and city administrators point to an increase in crime as one reason for the poorer police service. As of June 10, there had been a 10.1% overall increase in the more serious crimes, including murder, assault and burglary, from the same time last year.
Officials say more police officers are needed.
The department’s budget for the 1989-90 fiscal year provides money to add 10 officers. But 49 of the approximately 650 sworn personnel are out because of injuries, according to department reports provided by Kell and Hankla. Another 40 positions are vacant, and police hope to fill those spots with the next Police Academy class, which begins Monday, according to the city manager.
At the same time, the chief’s deployment of personnel is being questioned.
At least half a dozen sergeants have been transferred to the internal affairs department, according to various sources. And the chief’s own staff has increased to 15 positions from 4.6 in 1987-88, according to the city’s budget. Of the new positions, eight are for sergeants and detectives.
Leaders of the Police Officers Assn., embroiled in contract negotiations with Binkley, have criticized the police chief’s staffing decisions, particularly the creation of about 20 special task forces that deal with specific problems, such as gangs, drugs and repeat offenders. Task force members generally are not called on to respond to service calls.
Union leaders estimate that 10% of the force is assigned to such specialized groups, which union President Mike Tracy called “a luxury” that should not preempt patrol priorities.
Until recently, the union officials were alone in criticizing Binkley for creating the special task forces.
Task Force Success
In the city’s 1st District, which encompasses part of the downtown, the special task forces have done a good job of getting rid of gang and drug activity, said Councilman Evan Anderson Braude. For example, in the Willmore City Historical District, special task forces have cleaned the area of drug dealing several times.
But other council members are raising questions about the value of task forces and police service in their districts in general.
Councilman Tom Clark said: “If we’re not cutting crime and we’re getting slower response time, then we need to evaluate the task forces.”
Councilwoman Jan Hall, who represents the Belmont Shore and Naples area, said she has not received an unusually high number of complaints about response time.
In the north and northeastern sections, however, council members say they are concerned that their neighborhoods are not getting that same kind of special attention.
Emphasis on Downtown
Councilman Warren Harwood said he believes there is greater emphasis on the downtown and beach areas than in his North Long Beach district. Councilman Robbins expressed the same concern about his typically low-crime district, which experienced sharp crime increases recently.
Robbins said that the two cars regularly assigned to his area “are rarely there. I have a scanner. I can listen, and I know they are not there.” The patrol cars, which are supposed to stay within their patrol area, are now commonly dispatched to other parts of town, Robbins said.
Robbins, who is president of the 5,500-member Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, said: “My policy about policing is simple. I believe that eight out of 10 citizens when asked how they would evaluate their local police department will respond: ‘I want them to come promptly when I need them, and I want them to be courteous, and I want them to know what they’re doing.’
“I think we have a department that’s right on the edge,” he added. “Maybe the management decisions--and I’m saying maybe--broke the proverbial camel’s back.”
Tax Proposal Studied
City Manager Hankla said he plans to withhold judgment until an independent consulting firm concludes its study of the Police Department’s staffing. The City Council ordered the study earlier this year by Sacramento-based Ralph Anderson & Associates to help decide whether to ask voters to approve new taxes to pay for about 165 more officers.
“I’ll know (the effectiveness of the task forces) after we do the study,” Hankla said. “If we thought everything was perfect, we wouldn’t do the study,” which will include a review of the department’s deployment policies.
Hankla noted that the task forces helped reduce crime when they were first created in 1987, the year Binkley took over as chief. “The issue here is balance,” Hankla said. “While we believe we have an insufficient amount of resources, we want to see (in the pending study) how we are using what we have.”
AVERAGE LONG BEACH POLICE RESPONSE TIMES
1989 1988 (Jan. through May) (all year) EMERGENCY CALLS 5 minutes or less 55.98 % 66.66 % 8 minutes or less 29.59 18.81 11 minutes or less 9.82 8.22 12 minutes or more 13.6 9.29 NON-EMERGENCY CALLS 8 minutes or less 28.23 34.53 11 minutes or less 9.65 10.68 14 minutes or less 7.82 8.39 15 minutes or more 58.28 46.38
Source: Long Beach Police Department