The number of police officers patrolling Los Angeles streets is near a five-year low, and South Los Angeles, even though it leads the city in violent crime, is the area that has lost the most officers, according to Los Angeles Police Department internal reports.
The patrol force in the LAPD's South Bureau has shrunk by 106 officers since January, 2001 -- almost equal to the number lost in the city's other three bureaus combined.
And while police are taking longer to respond to emergency calls everywhere in the city, residents of South Los Angeles have suffered the most.
The shift highlights the challenge facing the LAPD as Chief William J. Bratton and his new management team prepare to restructure the department.
"We are 60 days into this process," LAPD Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell said Friday when asked about the widening gap. "We are very concerned about response times and providing service.... We certainly need to look at this."
The growing imbalance among LAPD's four bureaus -- South, Central, Valley and West -- is a dilemma for the department.
On the one hand, the LAPD battles high rates of violent crime in the densely populated neighborhoods of South-Central Los Angeles. On the other, it must contend with a larger volume of calls in the San Fernando Valley and West L.A., where the population is more spread out and officers must drive longer distances.
The LAPD must constantly balance these conflicting demands by shifting patrol officers, usually small numbers of them. Transfers in the past year are measured only in the dozens.
The deterioration is occurring most rapidly in South Los Angeles. On average, South L.A. residents now wait 3.3 minutes longer for police to respond to an emergency call than they did two years ago.
In the rest of the city, residents wait 2.1 minutes longer. Response times in South Los Angeles now average about 10.6 minutes, up from 7.3 minutes in January 2001. In the city's other bureaus, response times have risen from an average of 7.9 minutes two years ago to 10 minutes today. Response times have grown worse overall, in part, because patrol squads throughout the city have become increasingly stretched.
Even as the number of LAPD officers has grown slightly, the number of police assigned to patrol has dropped. The department now has 9,025 sworn officers, but only 4,341 patrol officers deployed to the four bureaus. That's 145 fewer than in November 2001, when the total force was 8,944 sworn officers.
LAPD officials cite a number of reasons for the reduction of patrol officers and the worsening response times. About 150 officers over the past three years have been reassigned to internal affairs or audit duties related to a federal consent decree mandating department reforms. Patrol officers are spending more time in training, in part to meet reform mandates. And more than 20 officers have been deployed to LAX since Sept. 11. Others have been called to military service.
However, South Bureau Deputy Chief Earl Paysinger, who was recently appointed to the job, said the widening gap between patrol forces in South Los Angeles and elsewhere in the city raises questions.
Violent crime rose by about 7% in the South Bureau in 2002, even as it remained level or slightly declined in the rest of the city, the LAPD reports show. However, the total number of calls for police service -- a much larger figure than the number of violent crimes -- remained higher in the San Fernando Valley.
The LAPD uses a mathematical formula to figure out where to place its officers. The formula uses 25 factors, including size of neighborhoods, time spent on each call and the numbers of calls for assistance. Small adjustments in deployment are made each month by top officers, but the number of patrol officers in each bureau is largely dictated by the formula.
The formula dates from the late 1980s, when a political battle broke out over police deployment. A consultant's report had suggested that officers were taking longer to respond to calls in poorer neighborhoods, in part because the LAPD formula at the time gave extra weight to property crimes. That was said to favor rich people with more valuables. The formula was changed in the resulting furor. It later turned out that the allegations of inequalities had been based on questionable math.
The revamped formula, however, is still in use. It does not specifically take violent crime into account. But it does take into account how many officers are required to handle calls. And because violent crime, especially homicide, ties up a lot of officers for long periods, the formula inherently favors high-crime areas anyway.
In the past, this seems to have been true. South Los Angeles police stations, which contend with higher crime rates per capita, have long been able to maintain some of the best response times in the city. This has been the case even though the San Fernando Valley gets more officers because of higher call volumes, longer driving distances, and a population almost double that served by the South Bureau -- 1.2 million compared with 661,000.
But the formula has dealt fewer officers to South Los Angeles while response times have grown. Residents of South L.A. are now roughly even with those of the San Fernando Valley in having to wait the longest for LAPD patrol officers.
The deployment picture has improved recently as new recruits have hit the streets. And the department has taken some steps in the last year to help make up for the depletion in the South Bureau. For example, South L.A. stations have gotten extra help from crime-suppression platoons, as well as loans of detectives and motorcycle officers from other areas. But these officers do little to alleviate the burden of radio calls.
There are two competing explanations within the department. According to one, the formula still works, but officers deployed to South Bureau are being mismanaged. Another view holds that the formula itself has become obsolete.
Either way, the issue will be scrutinized anew. "We have gotten a whole slew of consultants to look at deployment and resources," Assistant Chief McDonnell said.
In particular, Bratton wants to get more officers out of specialized work and desk jobs and back on the streets. But McDonnell said the department must also avoid a wholesale transfer of officers to benefit one part of the city over another.
"Everyone wants resources used from a citywide perspective," he said. "We need to look at the formula, but we won't arbitrarily take resources from one area to staff another."
Fewer cops in South Los Angeles
Despite concern over violent crime in South Los Angeles, LAPD's deployment formula has resulted in a decreasing number of officers assigned there.
Longer police response times
The length of time needed for police officers to respond to emergencies has grown by two minutes from this time last year in South Los Angeles, the largest increase in the city (in minutes)
Source: LAPD internal documents