Contract talks aimed at settling an increasingly contentious police salary dispute failed to head off a wildcat strike Monday as almost half of the Los Angeles police officers scheduled to work evening shifts called in sick, affecting every police station in the city.
Acting to head off any threat to public safety, LAPD leaders called a “modified tactical alert” in the afternoon, holding over officers on the day shift so that the department’s street presence was not diminished by the absences. They also activated the city’s Police Emergency Control Center, an underground command post last called into service after the January earthquake.
“We have more than adequate resources to police this city,” said Cmdr. David J. Gascon, a department spokesman. “Not only can we handle emergencies but also the regular police operations.”
Because of the department’s response, the sickout did not reduce the number of officers at work Monday evening and, in some cases, even bolstered patrols. It will, however, force the department to pay overtime to those officers who cover for their missing colleagues. That tab could top $1 million a day, according to city estimates.
The job action was the latest in a series of flare-ups that have strained relations between police officers and City Hall. But unlike previous protests in the two-year-long contract dispute, the so-called “Blue Flu II” was not authorized by the city’s police union, which is barred from organizing such a demonstration. As a result, plans for the sickout circulated mostly by word of mouth and underground memoranda.
It also took place despite the efforts of Police Chief Willie L. Williams, who has supported a police pay hike but also has sternly warned that officers who participated in the job action would be subject to discipline. “Employees do not have the right to engage in the proposed job action,” Williams said in a memo that has been read at every police roll call for the past week.
Nevertheless, department records showed that 226 of the 494 officers who were supposed to work Monday evening called in sick. Some supporters of the job action said the department figures understated the true dimensions of the sickout, which they contended involved closer to 75% of the officers scheduled to work Monday evening.
In either case, the numbers were startlingly out of the ordinary: Normally, about 30 officers call in sick on any given shift.
Participation was not spread evenly across the city. Some police stations said virtually all their officers reported for work, while elsewhere whole shifts were decimated.
In the department’s Harbor Division, 12 of 14 officers called in sick, though no sergeants or lieutenants joined them. In the Valley’s Devonshire Division, 12 of that station’s 17 police officers and one sergeant called in sick.
On the Westside, 30 out of 37 officers from the Pacific Division, including its entire beach detail, called in sick. But cloudy skies held down crowds from their usual Memorial Day highs, so the officers’ absence was not felt as sharply as it might have been.
Several of the department’s busiest police stations, including the Rampart and Central divisions, also reported large numbers of officers calling in sick.
Monday’s sickout was the first in a rolling three-day protest in which officers are expected to call in sick on alternating shifts. Under that schedule, officers who work the day shift, which runs roughly from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., would call in sick today.
Across the city, officers expressed their anger at the prolonged contract talks and their support for the mass sickout.
“The cops here are just fed up--fed up with the city, fed up with the council and fed up with the mayor,” said one officer from Rampart, a station with a long history of labor activism. “This is the only option we have left.”
At the department’s West Valley station, 17 out of 26 officers scheduled to work Monday evening called in sick. Sgt. Brian Hospotar, who was working as the station’s watch commander, said he is undecided if he will call in sick today if the contract dispute remains unresolved. But he said he is leaning toward reporting to work because supervisors have more to lose from disciplinary action than most lower-ranking officers. If the sickout continues, police leaders vow to hold over shifts or take other action to ensure that public safety is not endangered.
The blue flu is scheduled to end Wednesday, but the unsigned memo outlining plans for the protest ends with a warning: “Future job actions to follow.”
November’s blue flu was structured much the same way, but it was officially backed by the Police Protective League and was halted after a single shift when a judge intervened. Participation in Monday’s sickout exceeded that of last year’s.
Authorities are closely monitoring the effectiveness of the current sickout, in part because it may presage job actions planned during next month’s World Cup soccer tournament, when security concerns in and around Los Angeles will be at a premium. Although the World Cup is being played at the Rose Bowl, outside Los Angeles, LAPD officers will have responsibility for the many thousands of visitors expected to stay within city limits. They also will be charged with protecting dignitaries and securing Los Angeles International Airport, city landmarks and other facilities against any threats of terrorism.
While Monday’s blue flu was cutting deeply into the department ranks, negotiators for the Police Protective League and the city were meeting at City Hall to try to hammer out a deal that rank-and-file officers will accept and that the mayor and City Council can afford. They went into a special session Monday just before noon and talked the rest of the day without reaching any firm agreement.
“Negotiations have been positive, but we don’t have an agreement,” league President Danny L. Staggs said late Monday. “It’s just a shame that it takes something like this threatened job action to get negotiations going.”
The union membership recently rejected a contract offer that would have given its members a 3% hike this year and next. Instead, league negotiator Bill Harkness said Monday that he has proposed that, among other things, in addition to the two-year, 6% raise, the city add a contract “signing bonus” of $1,500 to $2,000 for every officer and that it restore a 2.5% pay hike as an incentive to patrol officers.
Harkness said he was confident that the rank and file would accept that deal, but city officials were said to be balking at it, since it would add at least $20 million to the $40-million cost of the police officer contract. Privately, some league officials acknowledged that the deal was unlikely to be accepted and worried that it might falsely raise expectations among league members.
“It’s going to be a long, hot summer,” one exasperated league official predicted.
Monday afternoon, the league put out a special bulletin to its members, seeking to dispel rumors that a deal was near.
“We have no tentative agreement at this time,” the recorded message said. “Although some progress has been made during these discussions, we do not anticipate an agreement soon.”
As the contract talks have become increasingly divisive, they also have created havoc for the league itself. Staggs presented the city’s contract offer to league members earlier this month, but more than 70% of officers voted to reject it. Staggs is now fighting a recall drive launched by Gary Morgan, an outspoken Metropolitan Division officer.
At the same time, peer pressure among rank-and-file police officers is becoming increasingly intense. League officials have urged their members to refuse to volunteer to work overtime, a move that holds down the number of police officers on the streets at any given time.
Most officers have gone along with the overtime boycott, but some who have not have been subjected to harsh retaliation. According to department insiders, an officer working in Central Division had his tires slashed after he worked overtime, while another officer working elsewhere was told that his colleagues would not back him up if he continued to volunteer for overtime.
If the current round of contract talks do not produce an agreement, the league has laid plans to keep up the pressure in the coming weeks. Officers are being asked to join a demonstration against Mayor Richard Riordan, whose election last year was aided by the league’s endorsement. They also are being asked to refuse all requests to work overtime during the World Cup games, a possibility that has stirred deep concern at police headquarters.
Times staff writer Abigail Goldman and correspondent Mark Sabbatini contributed to this story.