Police Wary of Having Civilians Oversee Vendors : LAPD: The plan would save the city money and free officers from enforcing rules on street merchants. But too many agencies are being granted power to enforce laws, authorities say.


As the city considers legalizing street vending, police officials are balking at shifting enforcement responsibility to civilian inspectors even though it would cost less and could leave officers free to deal with more serious crimes.

LAPD objections arise from a concern that civilian inspectors would need limited police officer status to do the job.

"The proliferation of these agencies has become a nightmare," said Cmdr. Scott LaChasse, a department spokesman on the issue. "Too many people now have these powers. It's become a very complex situation where questions arise as to who's responsible for what."

But the architects of the proposed law want civilians as involved as possible in its enforcement. "We wanted to get the LAPD as far out of the business of policing street vendors as we could," said Julie Jaskol, a former aide to ex-Councilman Michael Woo, the main champion of plans to legalize street vending.

"Having the police enforce the law, we thought, would be too expensive," Jaskol said.

The department's position has come to light as City Hall considers a plan to legalize vending in half a dozen commercial zones. If enacted, it would legalize an activity that involves the LAPD in several thousand time-consuming arrests annually.

The plan gained momentum last week after business leaders endorsed a plan to set up eight zones in the city where street vending would be legal. Street vending is now a misdemeanor.

Even if a legalization ordinance is passed, the job of regulating vending activity will be sizable. In the first six months of 1990, for example, 2,074 arrests were made for street vending violations, according to a city report. Furthermore, only an estimated 10% to 20% of the city's existing 5,000 illegal vendors would be licensed and allowed to operate within the districts.

The cost differential between inspectors who would come from the Bureau of Street Maintenance and police officers is notable.

Starting police officers are paid $1,800 to $4,500 more per month than starting street-use inspectors. But the biggest difference is in their pensions. The police pension system is three times more costly than the civilian system, city budget analyst Sharon Tso said. For every dollar spent on police salaries, another 50 cents must go to pay pensions.

With such considerations in mind, Woo, Jaskol and others proposed that part of the job of enforcing the city's street vending laws be shifted to civilians.

The inspectors, it was recommended, should be responsible for enforcing all vending regulations and laws inside the districts. The LAPD, on the other hand, would be responsible for enforcing the continuing criminal ban on any vending outside the districts.

But this split of responsibilities "doesn't seem to be in the cards now," said Pat Howard, director of the city's Bureau of Street Maintenance. "The police are against it."

The problem arose after the inspectors insisted that they needed limited police officer status to enforce the criminal laws against vending within the district. Only with such authority could inspectors effectively investigate and arrest illegal vendors, said Bill White, assistant director of the street bureau. The bureau, however, is not asking for its inspectors to be authorized to carry firearms.

But this proposal put the inspectors at loggerheads with an LAPD that is worried about the growing number of agencies with limited police officer status.

Now the plan is for the street-use inspectors to enforce regulations against licensed vendors. Licensed vendors--the only ones authorized to operate in the districts--would still be subject to an array of health, safety and business regulations, including ones to prevent them from operating in direct competition with similar, fixed-site businesses.

The police would continue to enforce criminal violations against unlicensed vendors operating either inside or outside the districts.

The situation seems bizarre to White of the street bureau. "The LAPD has said from the start that it doesn't want to be involved in enforcing any street vending laws," White said. "But they don't want us to have the tools we need to get to get the job done. It leaves us in a kind of no-man's-land."

Even the LAPD is not unanimous on the issue. Capt. Greg Berg, commanding officer of the Rampart Division, where the pushcart business culture flourishes, believes that the entire job of enforcing city street vending laws probably should be handled by street-use inspectors.

"It's not a public safety issue--why do we want the city's most expensive people enforcing this law?" Berg asked. "We don't have enough officers to answer all the 911 calls now."

But Councilman Richard Alarcon is wary about giving street-use inspectors limited police officer status. "I think it's premature to say they need more police authority," he said. "I'm not moving in that direction now."

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