Column: On LAPD spending, everyone’s right and everyone’s wrong
Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore listened patiently as I explained over the phone that I needed to clear up some things with his department.
On Feb. 10, I wrote about Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martinez, who was under fire because one of his staffers asked for extra patrols to watch over a broken-down Lexus, even though Soto-Martinez has long criticized police spending as excessive.
In the piece, I said that the LAPD’s budget for the current fiscal year was $11.8 billion. I was wrong — that was the budget for the entire city. The police have only a $1.9-billion operating budget.
LAPD Deputy Chief Alan Hamilton reached out to a colleague of mine to complain about my mistake. He also trashed Soto-Martinez for telling me that the police take up 40% of the city budget.
Hamilton, who heads the Valley Bureau, called the council member’s figure a “straight-out lie,” claiming that the LAPD’s portion of the budget is only 18%.
I asked Soto-Martinez where he got the 40%. He replied through a spokesperson that it came from a breakdown that Controller Kenneth Mejia released last year, as a candidate. The council member was referring to the Los Angeles Police Department’s percentage of unrestricted revenues in then-Mayor Eric Garcetti’s proposed budget — that is, the money that the City Council can spend according to its discretion, said the spokesperson, Nick Barnes-Batista.
Mejia’s campaign website, though, stated a slightly higher figure — 46%, which was rounded upward from the exact percentage of 45.9%.
I also checked out Hamilton’s assertion.
The LAPD’s operating budget of $1.9 billion represents 16% of L.A.’s $11.8-billion overall budget. But the city’s total police costs — not just salaries and equipment but other costs like pensions and health benefits — for this fiscal year is $3.15 billion. That’s 26.8% of the overall budget.
When it comes to LAPD spending, it seems everyone is right, and everyone is wrong. So I asked Moore if I could read him a list of stats without interruption, then get his reaction. He agreed.
I started with the $3.15-billion figure. “Where’s that number coming from?” he blurted.
It had been less than 30 seconds since his promise.
He continued like this for the next 40 minutes, punctuating our conversation with all sorts of segues and discourses. I tried to steer back to my numbers, but Moore kept contesting them.
When I mentioned that the city budget had slotted $2.8 billion to the department from the unrestricted revenues, Moore curtly replied, “No.”
At one point, he responded, “Is it 30%, is it 45%? Whatever the numbers are, yes, we make up a lot of it.” At another point, he apologized: “Go back to your figures. I keep interrupting.”
And then he kept interrupting.
He asked where I was getting all my numbers. The city, I replied. And that’s where his were coming from, too.
“I have them right in front of me,” he stated, then texted me his source: a 26-page budget summary released in October.
I was using the full 631-page budget passed last summer by the City Council and signed by Garcetti.
Moore was polite but pounced at every chance. “As Mark Twain said,” he cracked early on, “there’s lies, damn lies and statistics. Everyone has their own bias, their own rationale.”
Including him. No matter what percentages or totals I threw at him, Moore said the city should actually be spending more on policing.
“When I look at the scarce resources we have, I see further need for investment,” he said. “We’re hopeful to restore and build. The promise is that we’ll rebuild smartly, and we’ll deepen the public’s trust in this department.”
The proposal for more LAPD funding could easily become an issue in the June 7 primary election, which features several candidates who want to rein in law enforcement costs.
No matter how Moore might spin it, Los Angeles devotes a lot of money to the Police Department. Fire and Public Works are the only other city departments budgeted for more than a billion dollars. At $1.24 billion and $1.67 billion, respectively, they’re far behind the LAPD.
The 13,849 sworn and civilian employees the city budgeted for the LAPD this fiscal year represent 40% of all city staff (Moore said the current head count is around 11,800). Thirty-seven percent of the city’s pension and retirement costs for this year go to retired cops.
After two years of activists pleading with the council to divert money from police and toward other programs, the City Council nevertheless increased this year’s police budget by $87 million. Moore, who was recently granted a second five-year term by the Los Angeles Police Commission, wants even more.
“I absolutely believe this is a department that needs to grow and expand,” he reiterated. “And I’m encouraged because Mayor [Karen] Bass and other [council members] have said the same.”
He said he bears no animus toward Soto-Martinez, referencing a recent sit-down with the council member.
“We shared a common goal. That’s the safety of Los Angeles,” the chief said. “We may differ on how to get there, but I believe he supports the existence of police officers, and I know I believe [in] alternatives to policing. This conversation seems to be binary too often.”
He did take issue with how Mejia, Soto-Martinez and others cherry-pick line items from the city budget, like the 46% chunk of unrestricted spending marked for the LAPD. During his campaign, Mejia earned national attention for billboards showing how disproportionately large LAPD spending was compared with other city departments like housing and youth development.
“It’s an interesting ploy,” the chief said. “Let’s look to the underlying motivation. Is it out of simple misunderstanding, or is it to do a point of persuasion that funding should be shifted from the department? It’s the latter.”
So which figure is the most accurate reflection of how much the city spends on policing? The LAPD’s $3.15-billion overall costs, its $2.8-billion bite of unrestricted revenues, or its $1.9-billion operating budget?
“Don’t think I’m picking this number because it’s the lowest,” Moore replied, “but $1.876 billion is what I’m in charge of as the police chief, as the CEO.”
The exact figure is $1,876,830,890 — but who’s counting?
The overarching narrative among critics is that the LAPD’s budget represents nearly half of all city spending, I told Moore.
That gives the public “a misimpression,” and they will “lose confidence in government because they’re spending this disproportionate share and not getting the services they should,” he replied.
“When you misstate or frame statistics in a manner that support your view ...” Moore paused, then concluded his thought. “As Paul Harvey said, ‘Now you know the rest of the story.’”
I tried to have a similar conversation about police spending with Mejia, but Diana Chang, his director of communications, said he was “very busy” and suggested I submit questions via email that would be “route[d] to the appropriate division.” I did so, and Mejia never responded.
Maybe his corgis ate my questions? I’ll let ustedes know if they cough up or poop out anything, and report back. Bad doggies!
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