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LAPD’s flextime dilemma

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Police Officer Joe Dewey protects and serves the residents of North Hollywood Division three days a week, 12 hours a day, which means more days decompressing aboard his boat at Lake Havasu.

Devonshire Division patrolman Stephen Knight, who has the same schedule, spends some of his extra days off on the soccer field, coaching his 8-year-old son’s team, the Green Hawks.

“I love it. I love that I get to spend more days with my family,” Knight said. “I can be there when my sons get home from school and help them with their homework. I’m recharged when I get back to work.”

Five years after the Los Angeles Police Department adopted the so-called 3/12 schedule for a majority of its officers, the plan is hugely popular with the rank-and-file, who credit it with boosting morale and allowing them to get more done at work.

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But that gift to officers may have come at a price: A new city analysis has found that police are slower responding to emergency calls and overtime costs have increased; other agencies that have tried the plan also have found that their officers are less rested and effective, especially at the end of very long shifts.

The result presents a dilemma for a police department desperate to increase its ranks and maximize its effectiveness. To get rid of flexible work time could invite officers to leave or discourage new recruits; to keep it may undermine public safety and the city budget.

“Fatigue was always an issue,” said Capt. Buddy Goldman, commanding officer of the West Hollywood station for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which dropped the 3/12 schedule there in March.

Goldman said the schedule made it hard for deputies to attend required training and make court appearances. Sometimes, deputies reported for duty exhausted from spending a day in court after a 12-hour shift.

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“I would have to send them to the bunk room for a couple of hours,” he said. “That is not the best use of your deputies.”

A new study by L.A. City Administrative Officer Bill Fujioka found response times are longer, court overtime pay is up and some neighborhoods seem to be short-staffed since the LAPD moved to the 3/12 schedule.

The study is reigniting City Hall debate over the issue. Although the report makes no recommendations, a City Council committee that is expected to hold hearings on the report next month could suggest changes.

The flexible work schedule was phased in starting in November 2001 to fulfill a campaign promise by then-Mayor James K. Hahn. He won election that year with the backing of the Police Protective League, which pushed hard for the schedule.

Today, 70% of LAPD officers work a 3/12 shift, and most of the rest work four days a week, 10 hours a day. Officers on the 3/12 schedule work occasional extra shifts to raise their average weekly hours to 40.

Police Chief William J. Bratton said he believes there are other schedules that would work better, but they have to be weighed against the benefits this one provides in recruiting and retaining officers.

“It’s not a system I’m defending. It was here before I got here. It’s what I have to work with,” he said.

“Going to some other type of shift might be a better operational shift, but if it precludes us from being able to attract sufficient recruits to staff those shifts, then we have created for ourselves a conundrum.”

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The city’s study, however, found that the compressed work schedule may be having little or no effect on recruiting: The year before the new schedule started, 12,714 people took the test to become an LAPD officer; the number dropped to 5,545 last year.

Although many Southern California agencies, including Burbank, Santa Ana and Whittier, offer 3/12 schedules, only 15% of the LAPD’s big-city counterparts use the plan, according to a survey last year by the national group Police Foundation.

The city study identifies some potential pitfalls. Among its findings:

* Monthly median response time for emergency calls increased from 5.5 minutes before the flexible scheduling to 6.4 minutes; median response time for less urgent calls went from 33 minutes to 44.2 minutes (Fujioka said other factors, including a policy change in what constitutes a high-priority call, may have affected the data).

* Traffic citations declined by 10.5%, while time spent on enforcement activities to reduce crime dropped by 13.5%.

* Arrests overall dropped by 10.3%; arrests for the most serious category of crimes decreased by 14.5%.

* Court overtime hours increased by 8.5%, adding more than $1 million annually in pay costs.

* Although overtime hours added to an officer’s shift decreased by 4.4%, sick-time hours off increased by 7.1%.

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* The number of times officers had to move among the 19 police service areas to provide backup more than doubled.

“Frequent crossovers from one patrol area to another could indicate that areas do not have adequate staffing,” the study states.

Reduced service is a major concern cited by Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who strongly opposed adopting the 3/12 schedule as police chief and now calls it “a major failure.”

Community activists in South Los Angeles also dislike it.

Having officers off the beat four days a week is “one more thing that is keeping us from getting the police protection we need,” said Hattie Babb, a member of the West Adams Neighborhood Council.

Donald Barnett, another critic of the schedule and president of the Vernon/Main Neighborhood Council, said he worries about the effectiveness of an officer worn out by long workdays.

“You don’t get the police officer who is well-rested, who can think out a problem and resolve a problem,” Barnett said.

Initially, officials worried that fatigue problems could be compounded if officers used their extra days to work additional jobs. However, the number of work permits issued to LAPD employees for off-duty jobs has declined from 2,104 the year before the new schedule was adopted to 1,620 this year.

Bob Baker, president of the Police Protective League, said he does not hear complaints from officers about fatigue.

There are few studies on the fatigue effects of 3/12 shifts.

Bryan Vila, who has written a book on police fatigue, said 12-hour shifts do leave officers “impaired.” Such shifts, he said, are workable, but only if police managers and officers work hard to curtail overtime and court time.

“Research repeatedly has linked sleep loss to poor decision-making, accidents and ill temper,” said Vila, a criminal justice professor at Washington State University, Spokane.

Experts said there are specific indicators of whether fatigue is affecting officers.

But in Los Angeles, two key indicators -- traffic accidents and accidental shootings by officers -- are not pointing to trouble. Traffic accidents involving on-duty officers have declined from 999 the year before the compressed work schedule began to 774 last year. And the number of accidental shootings by officers was the same last year as the year before the 3/12 was adopted.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who did not support the switch to the 3/12 when he was a councilman, will wait to see what the council recommends, said spokesman Joe Ramallo.

But Baker, the police union president who helped negotiate the 3/12 schedule, said the city’s 40% drop in crime in the last four years should be enough to silence critics of the schedule.

“It works. It’s been effective. I would hope the former chief [Parks] would at least recognize that crime is down,” Baker said, adding that concerns about court overtime hours can be addressed with better cooperation from the courts in scheduling officers’ appearances.

Any change in work shifts would have to be negotiated with the union.

“If they did away with it,” Baker said, “you would see a mass exodus of officers going to other agencies.”

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patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com


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