Politics & Policy

Penny Wise and Crime Foolish

Introducing the Los Angeles city council, the '62 Mets of government.

The New York Mets made their National League debut in 1962. Over the course of that season they had a team batting average of .240 and a team ERA of 5.04, and they committed 210 errors en route to a 40-120 record, finishing 60½ games behind the pennant winners, the San Francisco Giants. Though they would win their first World Series only seven years later, that inaugural season was and remains the benchmark for a level of ineptitude seldom rivaled in the history of professional sports. On observing his team’s misadventures one day, Mets manager Casey Stengel famously asked, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

If he were alive today, Casey might ask the same question about the Los Angeles city council.

Consider: over the last five years the city of Los Angeles has seen a remarkable decrease in all types of crime. Total Part I (i.e. serious) crime is down 31.6 percent from five years ago, with homicides down an astounding 38.9 percent over that period. Even in South-Central L.A., long known as the city’s killing fields, homicides are occurring at about half the rate they were in 2002. Remember, these are not just numbers on a spreadsheet; there are hundreds of people walking the streets today who would have been killed had the Los Angeles Police Department remained on the disastrous course it was on prior to 2002. Incredibly, there are those who would have us return to those bad old days.

It was in 2002 that then-Mayor James Hahn wisely chose not to retain Bernard Parks as chief of the LAPD, ousting him in favor of hiring current chief William Bratton. (Bratton was recently reappointed to a second five-year term in the post.) I advocated hiring Bratton at the time, and though we who toil at the lower levels of the LAPD have had our differences with him over these five years, differences chronicled many times in these columns, the drop in crime seen since his arrival simply would have been unthinkable had Parks remained in the job.

Unfortunately, after being cashiered as police chief, Parks did not go quietly into the night to enjoy his golden years. He ran for and won a seat on the Los Angeles city council, and he remains in that seat today, finding what seems to be inordinate, even unseemly, satisfaction in making things difficult for his successor.

Today Parks is chairman of the city council’s Budget and Finance Committee, and it is to him that Bratton and the LAPD must now come begging for the necessary funds to keep the crime numbers falling. So bitter is Parks at having been let go from the LAPD, so resentful is he of Bratton’s achievements, that he is willing to cut the department’s budget, even if it comes at the price of rising crime. And there are those on the city council who seem only too willing to acquiesce to Park’s petulance.

At issue is police overtime, which Parks suddenly and without apparent cause considers excessive. Since 1994, the LAPD has been budgeted for about 1.2 million hours of overtime each year, a figure whose origins remain shrouded in mystery. But in any event the budgeted figure is irrelevant in that the department annually uses several hundred thousand hours more in overtime than is allotted for. The great majority of that overtime is engendered from two causes, both of which are essential in the fight against crime: officers working late after making arrests, and officers going to court while off duty. It happens every year, and every year they somehow figure out how to keep cutting the checks.

Now Parks insists on tightening the purse strings, ostensibly in the name of fiscal responsibility, but in reality for no other reason than to exert his authority over the police department that celebrated his removal, and more importantly over Bratton, the chief who found success where he, Parks, found nothing but failure.

As is his wont, Parks has placed himself in a showdown with Bratton and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa over the city’s budget. Last year, Villaraigosa won approval in the city council for an increase in the city’s trash-collection fees, with the money to be used to bring the LAPD to a strength of 10,000 officers. The measure passed in the council with the understanding that the added revenues would be strictly committed to the LAPD. Now Parks has suggested that the trash-fee windfall be used to offset deficits in other city departments.

“This is one of the things that happens when departments don’t live within their budget,” Parks told reporters, taking a thinly veiled slap at Bratton. Granted, it may have been easier for Parks to keep a lid on overtime when he was chief: The department was so demoralized under his autocratic regime that officers were loath to make arrests or even get out of their cars. As the number of arrests declined under Parks, to no one’s surprise the number of reported crimes increased, as did the number of bodies stacked up in the morgue. These trends were reversed virtually the moment Parks was sent packing. The decrease in crime seen under Bratton was brought about by an increase in officer productivity: In 2006, LAPD officers made 38,000 more arrests than they did in 2002.

Los Angeles is hardly suffering from a revenue crisis. An October 19 report from the city’s administrative officer said revenues for this fiscal year were $31 million above expectations, and that property tax receipts were ahead of the previous year’s record-breaking level. So, if the money is coming in in such quantities, the only questions are on how it should be spent. What good are paved streets if they’re running with the blood of shooting victims? What good are libraries, parks, and pools if people are afraid to come out of their houses to use them?

The solutions proposed to avert the LAPD’s budgetary shortfall are comically shortsighted. Officers are being discouraged from making arrests if doing so will result in overtime, and some are being told to disregard subpoenas to appear in court. There is even talk within the department of having those specialized units that ordinarily work evenings, like gang and narcotics squads, work during the day so as to eliminate court overtime. But with these officers gone from the streets at night, when most gang and drug crime occurs, how long will it be before the city’s gangsters and dope dealers take advantage of their absence?

Faced with this pending crisis, how did the L.A. city council occupy its time on Friday? By banning the use of the “N-word.” No, I’m not kidding. Even Casey Stengel would be speechless.

On an 11-0 vote, the council adopted a resolution — put forth by none other than Bernard Parks — on a “symbolic moratorium” on the use of that most politically incorrect of all ethnic slurs. The council voted after listening to testimony from attorney Gloria Allred, community activists, and the owner of the comedy club where Michael Richards infamously made such prolific use of the word last year. A Los Angeles Times story on the vote told of Councilwoman Jan Perry’s bitter experience on hearing the word. “Perry said she was so emotionally scarred after hearing the word directed at her years ago.” said the Times, “that she recoiled when she heard it used by any people, regardless of their race or ethnicity.”

“It affected me so much psychologically,” Perry said, “that I remember to this day, the name and the place and the person who used that word.”

If that’s truly the case, Perry could stand on the sidewalk in front of her district office on South Broadway for an hour and hear the word used enough times to put her on a therapist’s couch for the rest of her life. And if she were to stand there at night, hearing some coarse language would be the least of her problems, especially if she and her colleagues can’t turn from cheap symbolism to figuring out how to pay for police overtime before it’s too late.

Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.

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