As far as jails go, the Los Angeles Police Department’s gleaming, new Metropolitan Detention Center is about as good as it gets.
Armed with more than $70 million in public funds, the department spared little expense four years ago when it started construction on the 172,000-square-foot, five-floor structure that is one of the largest of its kind.
It’s wired with video cameras and has automated security doors and electronic fingerprinting stations. To better monitor inmates and cut down on overcrowding, the jail is divided into secure wings that are flooded with sunlight from skylights and kept cool by a centralized air conditioner. Sound-dampening panels even hang from the ceiling because studies show a quiet jail is a peaceful jail.
All that’s missing are the criminals.
The new detention center sits empty because of the city’s dire fiscal crisis, which has left the LAPD unable to hire enough jailers to operate the large, labor-intensive facility.
When construction started, police officials never anticipated that the city would be locked in a budget crisis and hiring freeze when it was time to hire additional jailers. But now, with the LAPD increasingly desperate to vacate a dilapidated, overcrowded downtown jail that the new one is meant to replace, department leaders are mulling ways of redirecting staff and other resources.
None of the plans, police officials warn, are very attractive.
“These options are not good options. These are the least undesirable,” LAPD Cmdr. Scott Kroeber said at a briefing before the City Council’s Public Safety Committee last week. “These are going to be difficult times.”
The LAPD operates 10 jails — seven consist of a few cells inside police stations and three are larger regional facilities in the San Fernando Valley, South Los Angeles and downtown.
For the roughly 120,000 people arrested and booked into custody each year in Los Angeles, the jails are the way station where they must wait for arraignment. Typically the stay is a few days, but can last as long as six during holiday weekends.
The plan favored by LAPD Chief Charlie Beck and his command staff would see the new Metropolitan jail opened by the start of next year.
To do so, the LAPD would shut down its aging main jail in the recently abandoned Parker Center downtown, and shutter four of the seven small operations at police stations. That option would free up 56 of the 100 additional jailers needed to run the new facility, but still require the quick hiring of 44 new ones. The only way that can happen though is if the City Council makes an exception to its current hiring freeze.
The proposed closures would bring more than a financial cost: They would result in the loss of about 220 beds — about 20% of the department’s total capacity. Also, the 17,000 or so bookings done each year at the four jails would have to be done elsewhere, adding significant travel time for police officers transporting arrestees and detectives needing to interview suspects.
“It’s a lose-lose policy all around,” Councilman Grieg Smith, head of the Public Safety Committee, said during the briefing.
Although the LAPD relocated its headquarters to a new downtown facility last year, it had no choice but to keep open its old, central jail in the back corner of Parker Center. Opened nearly 60 years ago, the lockup is a relic of a days long past. (A sign on the wall outside one of the dormitory-style holding cells tells jailers the room is intended for war “deserters” and men in “feminine dress.”)
Years of overcrowding have taken a toll on the facility, and left it in dingy disrepair. The security screens on windows lining the hallways are caked with grit and grime, and a couple dozen surveillance cameras — none of which are in cells — observe only limited portions of the jail.
Currently, a single guard sits in a closet-sized office and monitors the surveillance feeds on a bank of outdated television screens, two of which haven’t worked for months.
“We’ve put in requests for them to be fixed, but no one has responded,” a jailer said with a shrug recently when a supervisor asked about the broken monitors.
With no central cooling system, large fans placed at the ends of the hallways do little to combat the stagnant air and soaring, summer temperatures. Cells are dimly lighted, while clogged plumbing sends a putrid mess flooding into the ceiling of the department’s evidence rooms, beneath the jail.
“You don’t want to come through here in summertime,” said Capt. Clay Farrell, who oversees the LAPD’s jail division.
Built to fit 151 beds, the place currently holds 440, which, on a typical weekend, can fill almost completely.
Describing the current jail situation as “dire,” Rob Saltzman, a member of the Los Angeles Police Commission, expressed dismay at the possible dangers of keeping it open in the event of an earthquake or fire.
“We’re potentially waiting for something significantly bad to happen if we don’t solve the problem. And that’s very clear to anyone who takes a look at it,” Saltzman said at the recent committee meeting.
Such was the thinking when taxpayers approved $600 million to fund improvements to police buildings in 2002. A large chunk of those funds were dedicated to building a new jail.
Constructed beside the existing jail, the new, $74-million facility also will house the department’s property division, which maintains evidence from cases.
Unlike the old jail, where cells line long hallways, the new jail consists of four pods, or wings. Each pod holds about 125 inmates. The new design, which calls for three jailers to work in each pod and many more working at centralized posts in the facility, requires about 22 people to fill one of each day’s two shifts — a significant increase over the roughly 14 needed in the old jail, Farrell said.
At the City Council Public Safety Committee’s meeting, police officials outlined two other options for opening the new jail. They call for closing more existing jails, which would cut the number of needed hires but exacerbate transportation delays.
At the briefing, Councilman Dennis Zine voiced support for the department’s preferred plan, but was adamant that the department needed to find a way to transport suspects without using police officers, who would otherwise be responding to radio calls. He raised the possibilities of using a private transport service, using officers from the city’s Office of Public Safety, or hiring certified civilians for the job.
“We’re going to end up shortchanging the people calling for service and frustrating the officers,” he said at the committee hearing. “We’ll really be doing a disservice.”
Kroeber and Beck responded that they were looking into such options, but that money remained an obstacle.
The committee members instructed the city’s chief administrative officer to report back at the end of the month with an assessment of the costs involved in the proposed hires and transportation options.
It will then be up to the committee members to decide whether to approve the plan and forward it on to the full council for a vote.