LAPD Officers On How Budget Cuts Will Change Their Lives
Waiting to catch the Metro in downtown Los Angeles two weeks ago, I noticed three police bikes locked outside of Popeyes Chicken and thought their owners might offer a worthwhile perspective on the most recent budget draft released by City Council. With the city of Los Angeles facing in a $212 million budget shortfall, many city and taxpayer produced proposals have demanded massive cuts in the public safety sector as an albeit hard-won remedy to the deficit. The most recent budget issued by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa threatened to impose millions in cuts to overtime and “operational efficiencies” within the LAPD. Los Angeles city council approved a $6.9 billion budet that includes cuts of $120 million to the LAPD May 19.
The goal to create a more sustainable, efficient police force while maintaining the same number of officers is admirable. The plan seems to have been considered from every angle - citizens, taxpayers, parents, city council - everyone in other words, but the public safety workers themselves.
So I decided to enter Popeyes and two other fast food restaurants on the Figueroa Corridor, to see what the city’s police officers had to say about the financial turmoil. I had no idea how many different experiences each officer would relay, or how disillusioning some of their implications would be.
The three officers dining in Popeyes were extremely welcoming and polite. Yet when asked how the threats to limit LAPD funding affected their jobs, they responded “not personally.” They made a few complaints about their shrinking pensions, but they were hardly interested in a conversation about the city budget. I left them wondering if the cuts would be so detrimental after all. I probably would have approved the standing budget proposal myself if I had not made a round to the adjacent Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in the afternoon.
There, two officers (who chose to remain anonymous because they did not want to jeopardize their jobs) set their drinks aside with enthusiasm to tell me how life in the LAPD had been changing.
“We worry now about what’s gonna happen” said Officer Mocha, as Chai Latte nodded in lament.
He explained how pensions had already been static for over two years, with no cost of living raises. Later, in a telephone interview, Paul Weber, the president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, said this is a sacrifice that most officers have come to terms with.
“I think they recognize that it’s tough economic times,” Weber said. “The thing that’s more difficult to deal with is not being compensated in cash - they’re compensated in time.”
Under the new overtime policy, officers who work overtime are not eligible for cash, and often are urged not to work extra hours.
Said Officer Mocha, “Before, we had overtime. We were hustling harder because we had something to work to. Now, it cuts into the city budget - it’s looked down upon.”
Appearances aside, it also simply doesn’t pay the bills.
“You can’t go to the grocery store or pay your bills in 'time'” says Weber. Officers, he says, actually complain about wanting to be at work. This isn’t that surprising considering that officers’ jobs involve undertakings that cannot feasibly be given a time limit to complete.
“If you’re a homicide detective and you’re working on clues overtime, they’re gonna put you out for work. They have to put you off. Then you get behind on your case.”
Politicians who want to boost the department’s staffing numbers often do it at the expense of maintaining the deep levels of experienced cops, Officer M said.
“Quality over quantity” was his main message as he said that better trained officers with incentives to work were far more likely to get the job done than newer recruits. These, he assured me, were not in short supply however, because “The economy’s down and anyone will take a job.”
As I left the officers in Coffee Bean, I had begun to see how budget cuts hit police officers on an individual scale with consequences for the department. But I wanted to hear from more officers so I chose to brave the night crowd at Chipotle. I found three officers who scouted out a seat in a far away corner outdoors so they could eat their dinner in peace. They were of the more rugged, fit type who looked like they were ladykillers by day and convict catchers by night. They initially refused an interview when they heard I was a reporter, but a little coaxing helped to start a conversation.
At the mentioning of the city budget, they all laughed and looked at the officer in the center of the table. He spoke with the whim of an intelligent class clown turned self-sacrificing hero as he described an “eroded bureaucratic system” that he said can only be looked at “with a broad perspective.” By this he meant he had no direct solution to the city’s deficit, other than one which they all agreed on: “For starters, stop hiring.” They all concurred (explicitly countering the new budget’s proposals) that compensating already experienced and trained officers was far more important than “slapping a uniform on” “new kids” to satisfy a numerical requirement.
Otherwise they believed in a range of long-term solutions stemming from reforming “the people on top,” who could be more effective in reducing inefficiencies and regulating who was eligible for state funding under welfare so that the city wouldn’t need to cut so heavily into the public safety sector funds.
“It’s a lot easier to cut $100 million from LAPD than to fix the problems” said the middle officer. When another suggested only half-jokingly that the city collect funds by impounding the mayor’s and police chief’s numerous private jets, of which of course there is no official record, I couldn’t help but reference the DROP program. The Deferred Retirement Action Program has recently been exposed as a program of double-dipping, allowing officers who have worked with the police force for 25 years or more to collect often large sums of money from their interest-collecting pension and regular salaries during the same five year period. I asked them if they thought that cutting such a system would be one reasonable solution.
Recognizing the attack, one officer said that it only benefitted officers if you could stay with the force for that long, after which the whole table reverberated with “I won’t make it that long,” and “I certainly won’t.”
To this end, they described a force that they claimed suffered the “worst micromanagement,” where getting involved in a shooting means having to take days off and video cameras in the police cars were used as tools to actively monitor and punish the officers rather than defend against lawsuits and public complaints.
“It’s not the bad guys we had a problem with,” one officer said. “It’s the people in the desks who haven’t worked in twenty years, who haven’t been working out on the streets.” These officers were subject to a scrutiny that seems unfitting for the images of authority.
"If it is not the most, it is one of the most scrutinized occupations in the country," says union president Weber, after describing the random audits, sting operations, and extensive chain of command that stands to review nearly any decision an officer makes.
Although micromanagement may come with the territory of an extensive public safety network like the LAPD, the newest budget cuts have lately begun to magnetize the strain it places on police offers. When asked what his vision of a police department that was fully funded was, Weber described one that was simply prioritized.
“In your personal budget, you set priorities. To make your house payment, or to eat, then you go down that list until you figure out more ways to get resources to get more things. The city should fully fund public safety, then go down that list. That’s not the path the city has chosen. They’ve decided to slowly starve everybody and really make no decision on what are the top priorities.”
At this point, it is unclear how the public safety sector’s new diet will impact the safety and economy of Los Angeles, but an apparent decline in morale and motivation of members of the city’s police force may be more important to consider than steady staff levels where the budget is concerned.
Reach Laura Walsh here.