Arrests by the Los Angeles Police Department have dropped precipitously in the past five years, plunging from 290,000 to 189,000, a trend that has far exceeded a modest dip in reported crimes and appears at odds with the LAPD's growth over the same period.
Moreover, internal LAPD estimates predict that arrests will continue to decline this year, though not at such a rapid rate. By contrast, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which fields a far smaller patrol force, increased its arrests last year.
The drop at the LAPD has escaped most public attention, but top city officials, Police Department brass and union leaders say they are alarmed, fearing that the decline is evidence that police officers no longer are pursuing their jobs with the same vigor as in the years prior to the beating of Rodney G. King, who was arrested by Los Angeles police officers five years ago this month.
The overall drop in arrests is part of a larger picture: According to LAPD statistics, fewer cases are being assigned to investigators, fewer cases are being cleared, officers are conducting fewer field interviews and last year issued 232,000 fewer traffic citations than they did in fiscal year 1990-91.
Indeed, some officials fear that once-aggressive police officers now confine themselves primarily to fielding radio calls. In the city's station houses, there is even a street name for that new style of police work. Jaded cops call it "driving and waving."
"These are certainly very disturbing statistics," Mayor Richard Riordan said Tuesday. "I think we should ask the department to explain for the residents of Los Angeles what they mean."
Riordan said he was particularly perplexed by the numbers given the infusion of officers and equipment in recent years. "I, with the City Council, have given the department significantly more tools to combat crime," the mayor said.
One of his appointees to the Police Commission, Edith R. Perez, said she too is troubled by the arrest figures.
"There's something wrong with this picture," Perez said. "If we are increasing the number of officers, we ought to be increasing the number of arrests. . . . The population has increased, the fear of crime still is very high and we need to be responding to that."
Defending the Police Department's performance, department leaders say at least part of the decline is a predictable and even laudable side effect of the shift toward community-based policing, a style of law enforcement that emphasizes problem-solving over arrests.
"We are trying to focus on improving the quality of life, not just on the numbers," said Cmdr. Tim McBride. "We're not trying to flood the criminal justice system."
In the 1980s, McBride and other officials noted, LAPD officers were driven to boost their arrest statistics. Tallies were posted on police station walls, and officers were evaluated in part on how many arrests they made.
Since the early 1990s, and especially since Police Chief Willie L. Williams took the department helm, that emphasis has given way to a focus on the quality of arrests rather than the quantity and on responding to community concerns rather than boosting law enforcement statistics.
"We're still trying to arrest," said McBride, "but we're not trying to fill a justice system that is already bankrupt."
Others are less sanguine. Police union leaders attribute the falling number of arrests to heightened reluctance on the part of street cops to confront suspects. That wariness, they say, came partly from the King beating and its aftermath.
Ever since that 1991 incident--in which King, after fleeing authorities in a speeding car, was arrested and beaten--many police officers say they are haunted by fears of discipline, public excoriation and even criminal indictment. Some say it is not worth risking all that to make an arrest unless the crime is serious.
And although union leaders agree with LAPD bosses that some of the decline is positive--it means fewer arrests in questionable cases and a de-emphasis on sweeps that did much to fan community antagonism toward the Police Department--they are bothered by the size and scope of the drop.
"One thing police officers don't want to do is identify themselves as problem officers," said Cliff Ruff, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents rank-and-file police officers. "The way to get identified as a problem officer is by generating personnel complaints, and the way to generate complaints is by making arrests."
Some City Hall officials echo that perspective.
"Everybody's doing less work," said one official. "Making arrests means putting yourself in harm's way."
Although McBride and other officials stress that officers across the city continue to confront serious criminals every day, often at great risk to the officers, they concede that the lingering effects of the King beating and its aftermath have been hard for the LAPD to shake.
"Rodney King had a huge impact on our employees, there's no doubt about that," said McBride. "Nevertheless, when it comes to doing a day's work, our people are out there and doing their job."
Still, what is doubly troubling to some observers is that the LAPD sometimes seems to have little command of the issue: Asked by The Times to produce arrest statistics for the past five years, Police Department officials generated four different sets of statistics, none of which jibed with the others or with the numbers submitted in the department's latest budget.
Police commissioners said they too have been frustrated in trying to get statistics regarding the LAPD's performance.
The commission has formed a number of task forces to study the Police Department's progress toward achieving reform goals laid out by the Christopher Commission, which examined the LAPD after the King beating. Perez, who chairs the task force on use of police force, said the department has repeatedly missed deadlines in turning over material that would help her assess the extent of that progress.
"I asked for this material in December," she said. "It's March, and I still have not received all of it."
Similarly, some commissioners say they have struggled to get a clear picture of the trend in arrest statistics, with the department generating various different numbers at different times. The figures in the LAPD's latest budget request, however, represent the department's official assessment of the issue, and they show an alarming divergence between reported crimes and arrests over the past decade.
Reports of so-called Part 1 crimes--murder, rape, robbery and the like--dropped from about 300,000 in fiscal year 1985-86 to 277,000 in fiscal year 1994-95. Reports of less serious offenses have increased, rising to 112,154 in fiscal 1994-95--17,000 more crimes than were reported in 1990-91.
But drops in crime do not always suggest that arrests should fall as well. In New York City, crime has dropped to the lowest levels in a generation amid record-breaking years for arrests by police officers. NYPD officials credit their new, assertive policing style and their increased emphasis on arresting lower-level suspects for much of the decline in reports of serious criminal offenses.
In Los Angeles, the opposite trend has occurred against the backdrop of a growing police force.
In 1993, the LAPD launched the most ambitious expansion drive in its history. Spearheaded by Riordan, the Police Department and City Hall agreed on a plan to boost the size of the department by more than 2,800 officers in five years.
And though that plan has struggled in some respects, particularly because officers are leaving the department faster than anticipated, the LAPD today is a markedly larger organization than it was in the 1980s and early 1990s. At its nadir, the department fielded about 6,900 police officers. Today, it has more than 8,700 and is rapidly growing, with new academy classes regularly breaking records.
"That's what concerns me most about the statistics," said Perez. "I'm very concerned that arrests have fallen while the department has grown."
Amid the blizzard of statistical data analyzing workload trends at the Police Department, analysts point to one with particular alarm: Traffic citations, which reached 617,621 in fiscal year 1990-91, dropped to 385,210 in fiscal year 1994-95.
During that same period, the number of traffic officers has barely changed, and few would argue that the city's traffic woes have suddenly disappeared. Officers and their representatives say that what is new is the increasing hesitancy by some cops to wade into possible trouble when the offense is relatively insignificant.
"Sometimes those discretionary arrests are going to generate personnel complaints," said Ruff of the Protective League. "And with the department focused on those complaints, officers are going to think twice."
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Since the early 1990s, the Los Angeles Police Department has grown, and reported crime in the city has dipped less than 10%. But over that period, arrests by the LAPD have plummeted and continue to fall.
Number of Year* Arrests Officers** 1985-86 226,440 6,964 1990-91 290,018 8,192 1994-95 189,364 8,622
Number of Traffic Year* Citations Officers 1985-86 515,626 751 1990-91 617,621 771 1994-95 385,210 730
* Fiscal years
** At the end of 1986, 1991 and 1995
Source: Los Angeles Police Department's 1996-97 budget proposal