About 2,000 Los Angeles police officers--more than 25% of the force--marched on City Hall Tuesday, threatening to launch an escalating series of on-the-job protests if their demand for a pay raise is not met.
The off-duty officers--wearing T-shirts that dubbed their campaign “Blue Thunder"--circled the entire block around City Hall and chanted: “No justice, no police!”
When the City Council refused to interrupt a hearing on a housing and office project to hear their demands, the officers packed the hallways outside the council chamber and angrily chanted in protest.
Police Protective League board members said they will meet this morning to discuss what action to take next, including the possibility of a massive sickout known as the “blue flu,” or a speedup or slowdown in issuing traffic citations.
They said they will abide, however, by laws that prohibit strikes by public safety employees. “We are always going to be there for the citizens,” said David Zeigler, president of the union. “But our actions are just going to get stronger and stronger and stronger.”
Many of the officers said that after two years without a raise, their frustration soared this month when the city’s Department of Water and Power employees received a four-year, 9% raise.
“If DWP gets it, then we should get it. They are not getting shot at and stabbed,” Lewis Wiggins, a patrolman in the department’s Wilshire Division, said as he marched toward City Hall from Little Tokyo.
On the steps of City Hall, Zeigler told cheering officers: “We need to be dealt with fairly. If the mayor and the City Council will only listen to people who go on strike or take job actions, then that’s exactly what we are about.”
Although City Council members have expressed sympathy for the city’s estimated 7,600 police officers, they have also said that there is little or no money to offer raises. City officials say it was possible to grant a raise to Department of Water and Power workers because their salaries come from a separate fund bankrolled by utility ratepayers. Police and other employees are paid from the General Fund, which has been badly depleted by recession and state budget cuts.
The situation is particularly dicey for Mayor Richard Riordan, who won election in June with the heavy backing of the Police Protective League and selected its former president, William C. Violante, as a deputy mayor.
Union leaders said they had put off a job action this summer when Riordan promised progress in contract talks, but said the mayor has done nothing to help them since.
“We were there when you needed us,” Ron Aguilar, a member of the police union’s board, declared to a roar of approval from the crowd of officers. “Where the hell are you now that we need you?”
Riordan’s chief of staff, William McCarley, said the mayor would like to improve working conditions for police but it may take months to do so.
In a budget proposal that the City Council began to consider Tuesday, Riordan called for cutbacks in city departments to create a $17-million reserve. But council members argue that even if the reserve is approved it would only be enough to approve a 1% raise for about 30,000 city workers whose contracts remain unsettled.
Two studies indicate that Los Angeles officers are relatively well compensated. The Webster Commission, in its report after last year’s riots, found that Los Angeles spends more per citizen on police than all but three major cities. A 1991 Police Foundation study concluded that LAPD officers were paid more than their counterparts in the five other largest U.S. police departments.
But police officers were in no mood to be put off Tuesday.
Union officials challenged those studies and say their own research has determined that the department’s pay scale ranks below at least 50 others in the state.
Most beginning officers in the LAPD earn about $33,000 a year.
The protesting officers also complained that they have been overburdened by heavier workloads, deprived of adequate assistance as the force has shrunk by 700 officers and forced to work in outdated patrol cars. The union’s own accountant concluded the city has enough money to give police a raise.
They demanded to be made the city’s top financial priority, and called on Riordan to focus on retaining officers already on the force before pursuing his campaign pledge of hiring 3,000 new officers. “We need to take care of the officers we have now, or we are just going to lose them to other departments,” said Victoria Shroyer, a patrol officer in the Rampart Division.
As mad as they were at Riordan, the protesters were even angrier at Police Chief Willie L. Williams and City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, the chairman of the Budget and Finance Committee who has repeatedly said the city cannot afford to grant pay raises.
“Free Willie! Free Willie!” they chanted, suggesting they would be better off if the chief was removed from his job. They followed that with “We Want Zev!” punctuated by a few impromptu shouts of “Get the rope!”
The officers grew increasingly agitated as they waited more than two hours outside of the council chambers for the conclusion of the hearing on the Playa Vista project near Marina del Rey.
When Zeigler told the officers they would have to wait to be heard, some shouted obscenities. Others yelled: “Let’s go in! Who’s going to arrest us?”
But after being cautioned by Zeigler not to disrupt the meeting, the officers entered the council chambers quietly and left, without incident, after their leaders listed their demands to the council.