After years of decline in the size of the Los Angeles Police Department, city officials say the force has leveled off and is beginning to grow again.
Mayor James K. Hahn, who campaigned on a promise to expand the LAPD, predicts that the department will end this fiscal year in June with 325 more officers than it had a year ago. Hoping to build on the momentum, he anticipates nearly the same amount of growth in the budget he plans to release April 18 for the coming year.
The mayor and other city officials credit aggressive recruitment for the turnaround, as well as new policies that have improved officer morale and slowed the rate of attrition.
“It was the single biggest obstacle to making Los Angeles a safe city: that we were losing cops faster than we could hire them,” Hahn said. “We’ve turned that around, but we don’t want to lose the momentum, so I am making public safety the centerpiece of this budget.”
Even with the projected increases, the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 still will leave Los Angeles with about 285 fewer police officers than the department was able to put on the streets at its peak five years ago, when sworn ranks totaled 9,852.
“Clearly, increasing by 300 or 400 officers is not nearly enough, but it’s a lot better than losing officers,” Chief William J. Bratton said. “We will make do with what we have.”
As Hahn prepares to release his budget in a few weeks, some are urging him and the City Council to be more ambitious, saying the city should make a run at the often-proposed but elusive goal of a 10,000-officer force.
“With the strain on our detectives that we are seeing and the heavy caseload we are experiencing, I would like to see us at a minimum of 10,000 officers,” said Bob Baker, president of the police union. “But I know it might not be practical, given the city’s budget difficulties.”
A study by The Times in October found that Los Angeles had the lowest number of officers per capita of the nation’s five largest cities, and that it had the slowest police emergency response time.
Los Angeles, with 9,128 officers today, has one for every 404 residents. New York, by comparison, has 36,300 officers, or one for every 220 residents. The other cities with more officers per capita are Houston, Chicago and Philadelphia.
“That’s an outrage,” said Bill Powers, chairman of the United Chambers of Commerce of the San Fernando Valley. “Even with budget problems, they should aim higher. The city needs to prioritize its spending and, especially in times like these, public safety is the No. 1 priority.”
Hahn said expanding the police force is his top goal, but he cautioned that hiring too many officers at once could compromise the quality of the force.
The mayor is proposing a city budget of $5.1 billion for next year, up from the current-year budget of $4.8 billion, but much of the increase will go to fixed costs such as contractually required salary boosts.
Given the circumstances, the mayor believes -- and others agree -- that it is a significant accomplishment that the city has stopped the decline in the police force and is gradually rebuilding the ranks.
Three years ago, with morale low and city funding tight, the LAPD hired 393 officers but lost 694 to retirements, resignations and firings. Departures again outstripped hiring two years ago and in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2002.
This year, the mayor has provided funds to hire 675 officers, and the department is expected to lose just 350 to retirements and resignations.
If all goes smoothly, the mayor’s budget for next year will add 320 officers, bringing the police force to 9,567 by June 2004.
Baker said the turnaround has been made possible by an improvement in officer morale, partly because of a change in management at the LAPD and the perception that the disciplinary system is more fair under Bratton than it was under his predecessor, Chief Bernard C. Parks. The ranks also are happier since the mayor pushed through a three-day workweek for some officers.
Parks, now a city councilman, said the drop in attrition has more to do with new incentives in the retirement plan that encourage officers to serve longer. “The union rhetoric is just part of their own agenda,” Parks said of Baker’s critique.
Also, a weakening economy has helped with recruiting and reduced attrition, officials said, as officers and job applicants put more value on the stability of an LAPD job.
The debate over whether the police force is being expanded fast enough will land in the City Council after Hahn releases his budget next month.
Parks said that, because of the city’s tight budget, he isn’t sure a 10,000-officer force is attainable in the near future. “The Police Department should be as large as we can afford,” he said, but he added that the budget will dictate the size of any expansion.
Hahn said the visibility of officers on the street will increase even beyond the hiring of new recruits.
About 210 officers who had been assigned to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority system will soon be available for LAPD street assignments now that the transit agency is using the Sheriff’s Department.
These personnel additions come on top of the new hires, and Hahn’s new budget will provide funds to put those officers on the street.
In addition, Bratton is reorganizing the department to put more officers on patrol.
Hahn said residents are seeing results from the turnaround already. The mayor said the number of homicides in Los Angeles is down 20.5% so far this year compared with the same period last year, and he said the expansion of the police force should get some of the credit.
As of last week, there had been 116 homicides in Los Angeles since the beginning of the year, compared with 146 during the same period last year.