A Thorny Secession Issue: Who Would Police Valley?

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As Los Angeles contemplates its dissolution, the secessionist debate centered in the San Fernando Valley carries potentially huge implications for the future of city services, ranging from such mundane tasks as sewage disposal to lifesaving activities like emergency response.

Nowhere does that debate have more critical consequences than in its discussion of who would inherit the job of protecting the new Valley city's residents from crime and the kind of urban tragedy for which Los Angeles is justifiably infamous. Just as important: Who would police the city that was left?

Partisans on both sides of the debate exaggerate.

Secessionists depict a new, Valley-only police department in Mayberry-, or at least Glendale-like, terms, suggesting that small-town policing would come to their new city. In fact, the new city would be one of the nation's 10 largest.

At the same time, secession's opponents warn of a diminished, greenhorn cousin to the LAPD, one barely able to respond to radio calls, much less handle the inevitable earthquake, riot or other calamities that routinely visit the region. They also warn of an LAPD dangerously diminished by an arbitrary division of its ranks.

What is clear, say police officials and other experts, is that the Valley, should it secede, would face a historically unrivaled challenge in building a major urban police force essentially from scratch. At least in the short run, it likely would be forced to turn to outside help, possibly even back to the LAPD, for management assistance and some of the specialized services of a modern law enforcement agency--such things as the LAPD's mounted unit and SWAT force.

The LAPD, meanwhile, would face a circumstance unlike any it has ever encountered: retooling its operations inside smaller borders and either laying off thousands of police officers or figuring out how to hand them off to the Valley without undermining the protection of Los Angeles.

Advocates of a secession study and public vote on the idea have offered scant details about their vision for a new police department, arguing that it is premature to fill in those blanks. But they generally have indicated that they believe any hard assets north of the Hollywood Hills should stay with the Valley.

In one sense, that makes chopping up the LAPD simple: Take away the five police stations north of Mulholland Drive and leave the rest.

But the LAPD is a deeply integrated and centralized organization, with its various entities backing one another up. SWAT, helicopter units, the bomb squad, canine units, the evidence lab--all those and more are based outside the Valley in downtown Los Angeles.

Would the Valley relinquish all of those assets if it broke away? If it kept a portion, what is a fair share? Who would choose?

"This is not just about five police stations," said LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks. "There's an umbrella of resources that makes this department function. You can't just tear that up."

Separating intertwined systems like the 911 response network would be difficult and, in some cases, impossible. And the psychological question of when to call on the LAPD for help--in an earthquake, in a hostage situation, in a bloody shootout like the infamous North Hollywood bank robbery--would be more complex than most observers today are willing to discuss.

Even the most ardent secession advocates concede that the task of reconfiguring the region's law enforcement would not be simple.

"I don't see these problems as insurmountable," said Valley businessman Bert Boeckmann, a leading secession advocate and member of the city's Police Commission. "But it will take a lot of hard work."

If secession proponents won the right to break up Los Angeles through a citywide vote, the new city's leaders would be faced with three options: build their own police department, rent the services of an existing agency or blend the two approaches, perhaps hiring an outside agency to provide management and special services while absorbing rank-and-file employees from the LAPD.

Each option carries implications for the key issues that frame the secession debate: equity and local control.

For years, some Valley residents have complained that they do not receive their fair share of police services. The Valley, they note, has about one-third of the overall Los Angeles population, but only about one-fifth of all LAPD officers are assigned to Valley divisions.

In some respects, that comparison is misleading. First, the Valley is the LAPD's largest bureau, receiving more police officers--roughly 1,850--than any other part of Los Angeles. So although it does not receive a full third of the 9,600-officer police force, it is allocated more than any comparable area, despite the fact that the Valley produced fewer serious crimes and traffic accidents in 1998 than any of the LAPD's three other bureaus, which cover the central city, the Westside and south Los Angeles all the way to the harbor.

Response Time Higher in Valley

More important than that, however, is the way the LAPD uses its police. All parts of the city, the Valley included, benefit from the department's citywide services--communications, the police lab and specialized units. The result is that the number of officers assigned to any particular area vastly understates the police services available to that part of the city.

Still, secession advocates are right that there are slight differences between policing north and south of the Hollywood Hills.

Police response time, a widely used indicator of law enforcement efficiency, is slightly higher in the Valley than the rest of the city. On average, it takes an officer 7.7 minutes to respond to an emergency call in the Valley, where drive times are longer; in the rest of the city, the average is 6.8 minutes.

"Over the years, as president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn., one of the issues has always been deployment, whether we are getting our fair share," said Richard Close, a lawyer and chairman of Valley VOTE. "We've been shortchanged on the number of police stations and officers in the Valley because our crime is not as bad as other parts of the city. But we do have crime, and we need enough officers to handle it."

Assuming that the LAPD were split, how many officers and how much of its infrastructure should the Valley be allowed to keep?

State law places that decision in the hands of the Local Agency Formation Commission, a relatively obscure appointed panel that will study secession, set the terms of a potential municipal divorce, and ultimately decide whether it should go on the ballot. But because secession is an almost unheard-of exercise--it has not occurred in California since 1920--the law has never been put into practice.

Complicating matters further, there will surely be political opposition. Parks, among others, says he is unwilling to have an outside agency cull the LAPD rolls and pick out the officers it wants for its new city. Police union leaders would also resist any mass forced transfer of LAPD officers to a new police department.

At the same time, Valley leaders could hardly be expected to sit still for the chief's selecting the dregs of the LAPD and dumping them on the Valley.

"Los Angeles cannot hire all those police officers if the Valley becomes its own city, so it will be in everyone's best interest to divide the workers as equitably as possible," Close said. "I'm sure many workers who now live and work in the Valley will prefer to work for the Valley."

Equity drives one aspect of the secession calculus. Control supplies the other.

Valley leaders worry that the LAPD, spread thin across such a varied city, gives the problems of their area short shrift. A smaller, locally controlled agency, they argue, would fix that problem.

History offers some precedent. Most notable, perhaps, is the experience of West Hollywood. It incorporated in 1984 and opted to continue contracting with the Sheriff's Department for police services--but demanded that deputies refocus their operations and address what city leaders saw as the most critical local concerns.

"It's a work in progress, but they really responded," said West Hollywood Mayor Steve Martin. "Before, they were described as an occupying army. Now, we have openly gay and lesbian officers walking the streets, and people feel the department is a friend."

It is precisely that sort of local control that secession proponents envision for their would-be city.

If secession took place, Valley leaders would hold the purse strings and would make decisions based purely on local needs, be they added bicycle patrols for Ventura Boulevard, the Valley's main commercial strip, or added vice detectives in the Northeast Valley. Today those demands have to be balanced against the overall crime problems of Los Angeles.

There would be potential psychological benefits as well, supporters say. Valley police officers would wear Valley insignia on their vehicles and uniforms, giving what Close described as a sense of local pride.

The Valley secession advocates point with particular envy to Glendale, which has more police officers per resident than Los Angeles, and to the tiny city of San Fernando, which they say has better police services than those offered by the LAPD.

"Los Angeles has the highest taxes of any city in this area," said Jeff Brain, the president of Valley VOTE, "yet Burbank and Glendale, which are known for being friendly to business, offer their residents more."

There is a problem with those comparisons. Burbank, Glendale, West Hollywood and San Fernando all are small towns compared to the city that the Valley would be. Despite the rhetoric of small government and local control, the new Valley city would be home to an estimated 1.4 million people, ranking it with Philadelphia and San Diego, not San Fernando.

Moreover, the Valley would not start with an entirely clean slate. With secession would come not only a share of the LAPD's assets but also a share of its liabilities.

Because of past discrimination lawsuits, the LAPD is subject to hiring and promotion limits enforced by the federal courts; presumably, those would apply to the Valley as well. There are scores of lawsuits pending against the department and its officers; a share of those, too, would probably fall to the new city.

Finally, some of the LAPD's assets are simply not divisible. So although forming a new city would give Valley residents more control over assets in their neighborhoods, they also would lose larger programs and systems in the transition. The 911 system and the department's communications are the most significant examples of that. A county report on secession earlier this year concluded that many regional assets, including the 911 system, are simply too integrated to be divided.

"Our communications are not designed so you can take a piece out of it," said Parks. "For their communications, they'd need their own center, their own people and their own frequencies."

For every person who argues that decisions about dividing up Los Angeles should be made coolly, without rancor, there is another who points out that this process will play out as a political one--where decisions rarely are made coolly and without rancor.

That reality colors the essential choice that the Valley would have to make in selecting its police department. Of the three basic options for the new city, choosing to build its own force undoubtedly would be popular because it would reinforce the notion that the area is charting its own course. It is the option that, privately, secession leaders say they prefer.

It would be simpler to ask the Sheriff's Department to handle law enforcement, but that department has never taken on a city anywhere near the size of the new one.

Finally, the Valley could turn to the LAPD for its contract services. The new voter-approved City Charter is silent on police contracting, so city leaders could broker such an arrangement if they chose.

But secession, after all, is about breaking away from Los Angeles and its inefficiency. It is difficult to imagine strong public sentiment in the Valley for simply turning around and hiring the same agencies that residents had just rejected. It's just as hard to envision the Los Angeles City Council, having been snubbed by the residents of the Valley, turning around and offering a deal on police services.

Sheriff's Department for Hire

The political obstacles to preserving such an obvious link with Los Angeles make most observers think the likely course would be to hire the Sheriff's Department for some services, including top-tier management; to hire as many LAPD officers as possible; and gradually to build the underpinnings of a full-fledged police agency. That is considered the most viable option by many secessionists.

The advantage of that approach is that the Sheriff's Department has experience contracting out its services. The problem is that it has never tried anything like taking on a new client even one-10th as large.

"To say that because we can handle West Hollywood therefore we can handle the Valley is just hype," said one former high-ranking sheriff's official who has studied the issue. "It's like saying because we won in Grenada, we could take the Chinese. . . . It would require years for us to be ready for this."

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky--a member of the Local Agency Formation Commission--is characteristically ambivalent about the idea of committing the county sheriff to patrolling a vast new area. "It's not impossible," he said. "It's not even close to impossible. The decision the people have to make is, 'Given what we'd have to go through to get there, is it worth it?' "

If Valley residents decide it is, and if the rest of Los Angeles is willing to let the Valley go, there would remain the biggest question of all: How good a job could the new police department do?

In routine times, small police departments often perform as well as or better than big ones. But in crises, there are advantages to size, and Los Angeles has proved extraordinarily susceptible to crisis.

After the 1994 earthquake, LAPD units from across the city were dispatched to the Valley within minutes to help victims and to deter looting. During the 1997 shootout in North Hollywood, LAPD commanders broke from a meeting at USC and rushed to the scene, where SWAT officers based downtown eventually brought the tragedy to an end.

Those resources would not have been readily available to smaller police departments, and though neighboring cities can always call next door for help, the national record in the area of "mutual support" is checkered and riven with politics.

In fact, two of the country's best examples of politics interfering with police work come from Los Angeles. In 1965, when Watts erupted in riots, and again in 1992, when much of the city was convulsed by them, Los Angeles leaders resisted calling for reinforcements. Both times, pride and politics prevented the public from getting the quick help it needed.

Imagine the situation that could confront Valley leaders in a similar crisis.

After declaring independence from Los Angeles, the Valley's police chief, mayor and other leaders suddenly would face the uncomfortable task of turning back to their new neighbor in an emergency. And the LAPD, which today would simply dispatch officers to a troubled part of the city, would be forced by law and practice to stand by until a formal request was made.

That's because the state's mutual aid system requires requests for help to flow through channels, first from the affected police department to the area sheriff's department, then to the governor's office and then back down to the neighboring police. If all sides approve, the agency then can lend a hand and expect to be reimbursed for it; if not, the agency enters at its own risk--a risk that Los Angeles leaders warn the LAPD might not be prepared to take.

"It's one thing to step over the line to handle an emergency call," Parks said. "It's another to handle a major event."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Profiles of Police Bureaus

Some San Fernando Valley residents complain that they do not receive their fair share of LAPD services. Here is a comparison of some key policing measures in the Valley and in the rest of Los Angeles.

Citywide Operations

The LAPD assigns most of its officers geographically, but many also are based downtown, providing services to all parts of the city. Among those units are:

* Special Weapons and Tactics

* Horse-mounted officers

* Canine patrols

* Air support (helicopters)

* Robbery-homicide detectives

* Bunco-forgery detectives

* Scientific Investigation Division, including the crime lab

* Specialized narcotics investigators

* Planning and research

Sources: Los Angeles Police Department Statistical Digest, 1998; other LAPD materials

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