For the first time in the city's history, Los Angeles' police force now exceeds 10,000 officers, city officials said Monday.
Appearing with LAPD Chief Charlie Beck to discuss the continued drop in crime last year, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said the department is budgeted for 10,023 officers, up from the 9,963 authorized over the last three years, during a deep budget crisis.
The staffing increase took effect Jan. 1, when 60 sworn officers moved into the LAPD from the General Services Department, which patrols parks, libraries and other municipal buildings, said Villaraigosa spokesman Peter Sanders. Those officers will continue to patrol city facilities, budget officials said.
Some questioned the significance of the staffing milestone, since the overall number of sworn officers employed by the city hasn't grown.
"It's an increase for show," said Kevin James, a candidate for mayor in the March 5 election who has questioned Villaraigosa's LAPD hiring goals. "The mayor really wanted to get to 10,000 one way or the other before he left office, and this was the way he could do it under the current budget constraints."
Los Angeles experienced a 10.5% decrease in gang crime and an 8.2% drop in violent crime last year, compared with 2011. The city had the lowest number of violent crimes per capita of any major city, including New York and Chicago, Villaraigosa said.
The mayor attributed those numbers — and a decade-long decline in crime — in large part to the expansion of the police force.
Villaraigosa originally promised to add 1,000 new officers to the department during the 2005 election campaign, criticizing then-Mayor James K. Hahn for failing to do so. Since then, he has succeeded in adding 800 officers, Sanders said. On Monday, Villaraigosa suggested that the addition of the final 200 will not be achieved until after June 30, when he leaves office.
"I would hope that the next mayor would, as we get out of this economic crisis, increase our Police Department to that 1,000," he said.
While Villaraigosa has been pushing for continued hiring at the LAPD, Beck has warned in recent weeks that the LAPD would lose 500 officers if voters fail to approve Proposition A, a half-cent sales tax measure on the March 5 ballot. That would represent more than half of the LAPD buildup accomplished by Villaraigosa.
Despite Beck's warnings, Villaraigosa said he is not ready to endorse Proposition A until the council makes a series of cost-cutting moves, such as turning over operation of the city zoo to a private entity.
Since Villaraigosa took office, homicides have decreased 38% and gang crime has dropped by a similar amount. The number of slayings has stayed largely the same over the last three years, with 297 homicides in 2010, 297 in 2011 and 298 last year. Overall crime dropped 1.4% last year. Property crimes, which are more numerous than violent crimes, increased for the first time in several years — driven in part by a 30% increase in cell phone thefts, officials said.
With little money to pay officers for overtime, the department has been compensating them with time off. The resulting staffing loss has been the equivalent of about 450 officers at any given time, according to department figures — a hit that has complicated crime-fighting strategies.
Preserving LAPD funding has become increasingly challenging for council members. For nine months they have debated whether to lay off dozens of civilian LAPD employees while continuing to hire enough police officers to maintain current staffing levels.
Councilman Paul Koretz, who opposed the layoffs, said the movement of the 60 building patrol officers to the LAPD was "a little smoke and mirrors." He questioned whether the LAPD buildup in the Villaraigosa era was financially sustainable.
"It just seems like we really never did the analysis to see if we could afford it," he said.
A defeat of the sales tax increase, which is projected to generate roughly $215 million in new revenue, would leave council members no choice but to roll back the size of the LAPD, Koretz said.
But Villaraigosa warned that would be dangerous, saying other California cities have seen upticks in crime after cutting back on officers.
"I know some people think that 10,000 cops is a magical illusion, a meaningless number, that more officers don't necessarily lead to a reduction in crime," said the mayor, adding: "Those critics talk a lot, but they're just plain wrong."