THE SUPES WANT TO KNOW: WHY ARE SOME AREAS OF LA COUNTY GETTING MUCH BETTER SERVICE FROM THE SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT THAN OTHERS?
The fact that the residents of the unincorporated areas of LA County appear not getting the patrol services from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department that they have paid for was a cause for angry frustration at last week’s LA County Supervisors meeting. The frustration level shot still higher at Tuesday’s meeting after a newly released county audit showed in hard numbers that sheriff’s patrols had, indeed, been cut substantially in the unincorporated areas when the sheriff was running over budget and needed to snip some spending. As a consequence, the department’s response time for the county’s unincorporated communities was a full minute slower than that of the contract cities the LASD serves, which did not receive cuts.
Last week, Supervisor Gloria Molina had questioned the sheriff angrily on the issue since some of the crime-prone areas in her district were among those the most affected. This week, it was Zev Yaroslavsky who first opened fire (although the sheriff wasn’t in attendance).
“I don’t believe that the sheriff’s department has undertaken a serious effort to prioritize their spending,” said a very irritated Zev. “You cannot tell me that the first place that the department has to cut when they’re overspending their budget is patrol. That just doesn’t make sense!”
LASD sources we spoke on the budget issue said Yaroslavsky is right, that the department has a habit of loaning deputies from patrol and other basic departmental functions to pet projects favored by the sheriff and/or the undersheriff, whether the department can afford to do so or not. They said that inadequate patrols in the unincorporated areas are one of the unintended results. Years of under-supervised jails are another.
THE 17 PERCENT GAP—AND OTHER INEQUITIES
The 18-page audit, issued January 25 by the county’s Auditor-Controller, Wendy Watanabe, laid out specifically the amount of policing services the unincorporated areas of LA County are receiving from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, and how that policing compares to the services received by the so-called the “contract cities,” for which the LASD also provides law enforcement.
The supes were understandably unhappy to find that the unincorporated areas (or U/As as the audit called them) were measurably receiving the short end of the stick when it came to LASD patrols, response time, and more.
For instance, there was the aforementioned response time to an emergency call: in the unincorporated areas it was 5.8 minutes, whereas in the contract cities it was 4.8 minutes—a difference of 17 percent, or an average of a minute.
Overall, on a day-to-day basis, the contract cities got an average of 99 percent of the patrol hours and personnel they were promised. Whereas the stepchild U/A’s got an average of 91 percent of the promised patrol services that their taxes were funding. For some unincorporated areas like Santa Clarita, Pico Rivera and Malibu/Lost Hills that figure was somewhere in the 83-89 percent range.
When Sheriff Baca was asked about the discrepancy, he explained that the cuts to his budget in the last couple of years had caused him to have to slash 65 people out of patrol for the unincorporated areas, and that had slowed down the response time.
The sheriff did not explain, however, why the department had not seen fit to make commensurate cuts in the contract cities.
By the end of last week’s meeting, the supervisors agreed to order a forensic audit of the LASD to find out just where in the world the sheriff’s money was going, and what budget items were so essential that they could have necessitated the U/A patrol cuts.
CONTRACT CITIES V. UNINCORPORATED
For those of you who don’t remember (or never were clear on the matter in the first place), the policing of the various areas in LA County falls into three different categories: First, there are the incorporated cities that have their own police forces. These include Los Angeles, Long Beach, Inglewood, Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Pasadena, Gardena and more.
Then there are the many unincorporated areas of the county like parts of Whittier at the eastern end, and Agoura, Calabasas and Las Virgines Canyon toward the west, with a long list of communities in between. The sheriff’s department provides policing for all these areas. In fact, at a core level, policing the U/As is arguably the department’s primary raison d’etre.
Then in a third category, there are the incorporated cities that don’t have their own police departments but instead pay the sheriff’s department on a contract basis to provide their law enforcement services. These are the 42 “contract cities.”
It’s important to note, however, that the contracts are purely discretionary on the part of both parties. Again, the sheriff’s department is required to provide policing services for the U/As, yet not required to agree to police any of the contract cities. He enters into those contracts because he chooses to do so.
Hence the supervisors were upset when they discovered the U/A patrol services were slashed while those provided for the contract cities remained intact.
UNDERPAYING AND OVERPAYING
To make matters worse, according to the auditor-controller’s report, the U/As were not only having their services cut, they were in part footing the bill for the contract cities, which it seems are only paying $371 million for their services, while it costs the county $552 million to actually provide the services.
Part of this was because state law won’t let the county bill the contract cities for non-patrol services provided countywide—things like the Homicide Bureau, the Major Crimes Bureau, Narcotics, Internal Affairs, and so on, even though the contract cities benefit as much as the U/A does.
Nor did the department bill the cities for the shared costs that were related to patrol—like Aero Bureau (the department’s air support service) and Special Enforcement Units, or for the basic shared budget items like the costs of operating the various sheriff’s stations.
All those countywide expenses were charged 100 percent to the U/As, according to Watanabe.
MOVING THE CHESS PIECES
This week, the sheriff reportedly was moving LASD personnel around to rectify the problem. According to department spokesman Steve Whitmore, 22 officers have come out of GET—the sheriff’s gang enforcement unit. Evidently the GET officers had originally been pulled out of patrol and loaned to the gang detail. Now those 22 were being returned to their rightful posts, with more perhaps to follow.
It was floated earlier that another 90 were coming out of administrative posts, but Whitmore said Wednesday that no such large scale moves had, in fact, been made. “The sheriff wants to maximize coverage,” he said, adding that Baca wanted to get a better handle on the situation before making any more big changes.
Sheriff’s department sources say that part of the problem is that, in the last few years, personnel have been pulled in large numbers out of patrol and, as with the GET officers, sent on long-term loan to other units that, for one reason or another, the sheriff or undersheriff personally favored, but which were, in many cases, less than crucial. So, although these people were on the books as being at the various patrol stations, in practical fact they were working elsewhere—and the U/As suffered.
Whitmore admits to the long term loans, but disagrees with the rest.
“There is no fat in this department,” Whitmore said. “So redeployment is a challenge.”
FOR THE REAL NUMBERS, LASD GUIDES NEEDED
Judging by what Yaroslavsky, Molina and others have said in the last two weeks, the supervisors no longer seem to buy the “no fat,” concept, and are hoping that an audit will give them a more accurate picture than they believe they are getting from the sheriff.
Department insiders, however, tell us that in order to get to get the real figures regarding where and how the LASD spends its $2.4 billion budget, it is essential for the forensic auditors to have guides who know the ins and outs of the department’s finance secrets.
“Otherwise, they’ll hide and disguise the stuff they don’t want you to see,” said a department source. “That’s what happened the last time the supervisors ordered an audit.”
With those warnings in mind, we at WLA would like to respectfully suggest to the Board of Supervisors that it make sure its auditors avail themselves of just such consultants.
Photo by Mussklprozz, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons