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Police union wants L.A. to restore overtime instead of hiring more cops

It came as little surprise this week that the influential union that represents Los Angeles’ rank-and-file police officers waded into the debate over hiring more police during a major financial crisis.

What caught people off guard, however, was the union’s conclusion that the hiring should stop.

Los Angeles Police Protective League President Paul M. Weber, in an interview and an opinion article submitted to The Times, called on the city’s leaders to suspend their current policy of hiring new officers to replace those who resign or retire. It is a stance that, on the surface, runs counter to the union’s traditionally staunch support for a larger police force.

Instead, Weber said, the department should shrink itself in order to use its scarce funds to restore overtime pay that has been cut because of the city’s budget woes and to fill some of the hundreds of civilian posts at the Los Angeles Police Department that have gone vacant.

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Police Chief Charlie Beck said the union’s plan would jeopardize public safety. “We’d all like to return to a time where officers are paid for the overtime hours they work,” he said. “But it is not in the interest of public safety to do that” by thinning the ranks of officers.

And Matt Szabo, deputy chief of staff for Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, added, “It’s hard to imagine how the union is motivated here by the public’s safety,” noting that the LAPD has pushed down crime significantly in recent years.

The union’s announcement irritated Beck and Villaraigosa and complicated matters for them as they try to convince City Council members to keep police hiring intact despite the city’s ongoing budget crisis. Villaraigosa has staked much of his administration’s reputation on his ability to boost the size of the LAPD, while Beck has warned that a drop in the number of officers would badly hamper his ability to maintain recent declines in crime.

Weber said the mayor’s push to increase the size of the department had deteriorated into a “shell game,” with fewer officers actually doing regular police work. Although Villaraigosa has promised to hire 1,000 officers, budget cuts have caused the department to take hundreds of officers off patrol or detective assignments, either because of reduced overtime hours or to fill in for civilian workers whose jobs have been eliminated, Weber said.

The department’s overtime policy, under which officers must take time off in lieu of being paid for the extra hours, has taken the heaviest toll, sidelining more than 500 officers who would otherwise remain on the job, Weber said. He also pointed to a department report that found about 150 cops are currently being used either part- or full-time to perform civilian administrative jobs. Another 88 officers are expected to be assigned to a new jail facility because the city cannot afford to hire jailers.

“The public was sold on this idea that their tax money would be used to put more officers on the streets, who would keep them safe,” Weber said. “But the reality is that’s not happening.”

Instead of continuing to hire officers, Weber said, the department should determine the “core number” of officers it needs to adequately respond to a major incident such as an earthquake and shrink the department to that size. The savings, he said, could then be used by the chief to pay officers to work overtime and hire people to fill critical civilian positions. The loss of overtime pay has been a significant blow for officers, some of whom lost as much as a third of their income.

Beck dismissed Weber’s idea as a “red herring” that doesn’t add up. The union’s claim that a halt to police hiring would free up enough money to pay for overtime and hire civilians was false, Beck said.

He pointed to the roughly 200 new officers the department is scheduled to hire by the end of June, the close of the current fiscal year. If the department did as the union suggests and froze those plans, it would save about $2.2 million, Beck said. By contrast, the department would have to spend about $40 million in the same period if it once again began paying cash for overtime, he said.

The union plan “doesn’t get us anywhere close to being able to do what they want,” Beck said. “The league isn’t in a position to decide how to run the department.”

Councilman Dennis Zine, a retired police officer who has served on the union’s board of directors, said he and his colleagues are in a quandary over LAPD staffing. Council members do not want to back away from their commitment to hire officers but are frustrated to hear sworn officers are performing duties that could be done more cheaply with civilian employees, Zine said. “Are we going to continue hiring … regardless of how they’re deployed?” Zine asked. “Or are we going to come down to a reality check?”

Councilman Bernard Parks, who has long favored a halt to police hiring, called the union’s statement “remarkable and late in coming” but did not expect it would make the council change course. Council members frequently complain about reductions in civilian staffing, he said, but then move ahead with new classes of recruits at the Police Academy anyway.

“I made the recommendation recently that we not hire any more classes and we hold that money for civilian positions,” Parks added. “And that [proposal] keeps going into a dark hole.”

The recent debate over police hiring stretches back to the 2005 mayoral campaign, when Villaraigosa promised to add 1,000 officers to the LAPD. Once in office, he secured the money to pay for those additional hires by convincing the City Council to triple the trash collection fees.

Roughly 800 officers were added to the force, but as the economy flat-lined and the city faced a growing budget deficit, the council balked at continuing the hiring spree. Villaraigosa relented and agreed to a compromise to hire only enough officers to maintain the current total of 9,963 officers. In place of the promise to add 1,000 new officers, Villaraigosa instead began touting a goal of expanding the force to 10,000 cops.

It is a target that Weber said has been a distraction. “We all know that was a number that was pulled out of the air for political reasons, so let’s get away from it,” he said.

joel.rubin@latimes.com

david.zahniser@latimes.com


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