Newton: Villaraigosa’s numbers game

Over the course of Antonio Villaraigosa's nearly eight years as mayor, crime has significantly declined. Above: Villaraigosa is seen, left, with LAPD Chief Charles Beck in 2011.
(Los Angeles Times)

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has every reason to be proud of his public safety record. He worked well with Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton, who had been hired by the mayor’s predecessor, James Hahn. When Bratton left, Villaraigosa oversaw a thoughtful process to vet potential replacements and settled on the capable Charlie Beck. Over the course of Villaraigosa’s nearly eight years as mayor, crime has significantly declined; in each of the last three years, there were fewer than 300 murders in the city, a sea change from a generation ago. Villaraigosa will leave Los Angeles far safer than he found it.

But the mayor is rarely content to be credited only for what he deserves, and last week offered another reminder of that.


Appearing with Beck to review the city’s overall decline in crime during 2012, Villaraigosa used the opportunity to announce that he had fulfilled his long-stated goal of enlarging the size of the LAPD to more than 10,000 officers, a goal that eluded his predecessors.

Behind Villaraigosa’s surprise statement, however, was a catch. It’s true enough that the LAPD now has more than 10,000 officers, but Villaraigosa went the final distance toward that goal not by hiring additional police officers but by moving 60 officers who work

for the city’s Department of General Services into the LAPD.

Presto! The LAPD now officially has 10,023 officers.

The trouble, of course, is that while moving those officers into the LAPD may make administrative sense, it does not produce one smidgen of improved public safety. They will continue to guard city buildings, parks and libraries, an important function. But the fact that those officers will now be members of the LAPD will do nothing to boost patrols, speed response time or affect any other work that the Police Department does.

In fact, to deal with recent budget troubles, Villaraigosa has taken steps that diminish, rather than enhance, public safety. Forced to cut spending to balance the city’s books, the mayor cut back drastically on LAPD overtime, which has reduced the number of officers on the street. That decision has both short- and long-term consequences: It saves some money right now, but it ultimately exacerbates the city’s long-term fiscal problems because officers will be able to cash out overtime upon retirement. In the meantime, the LAPD today operates more like a department of 9,500 officers than 10,000 because its workforce is depleted by officers forced to take time off rather than work extra hours.

Not all of this is Villaraigosa’s fault. Every city departments is facing a pinch as Los Angeles works through its budget troubles, some of which the city brought upon itself and some of which stemmed from the 2008 recession. In such times, Villaraigosa deserves commendation for continuing to fight to fund the LAPD. But to suggest that putting new uniforms on existing city employees is somehow the fulfillment of a public safety promise or a move that will make Los Angeles safer is absurd.

That hasn’t stopped the mayor from crowing. In fact, at his news conference last week, Villaraigosa not only refused to entertain the idea that he was moving around deck chairs to hit a round number; he mocked those who questioned him.

“Some people,” he said, “think that 10,000 cops is a magical illusion, a meaningless number.” To the contrary, he insisted, more officers reduce crime.

Just to state the obvious: He’s right that adding police has helped drive down crime, but having an officer trade one uniform for another accomplishes nothing.

If I’m wrong, and simply changing job titles and uniforms really increases public safety, here’s a proposal for getting the city from 10,023 officers to 10,038: Dress up the members of the City Council and call them LAPD too.

Also: Loosely on the subject of policing, there is also welcome news to report this week. On Thursday, the Pardee Rand Graduate School will dedicate the James Q. Wilson Collection at the Rand Corp. library. Wilson, an influential political philosopher who taught at Harvard, UCLA and Pepperdine, died last year, and it is good to know that his papers and books will now have a permanent home.

Wilson was ever in search of questions that would help explain human nature. Nowhere was his contribution more vital than in the area of policing, where he pioneered the so-called broken windows theory, which guided police departments across the country as they revamped their approach to crime and saw enormous gains as a consequence.

Wilson grew up in Southern California. The new repository for his papers will ensure that his intellectual legacy remains rooted here.

Jim Newton’s column appears Mondays. His latest book is “Eisenhower: The White House Years.” Reach him at or follow him on Twitter: @newton_jim.