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Monday, October 19, 2009

The Thick Green Line

On Friday October 23rd the Long Beach Police Department will be operating under an interim Chief of Police. Commander Billy Quach will fill the role while a search is conducted to replace out going Chief Tony Batts. Batts is moving up to Oakland to take over the role of Chief of Police for the Other City By The Bay. As the City Manager's office conducts its search for a new Chief of Police there is a very large issue that will sit at the center of the table all applicants will have to address: how many cops are needed to protect the citizens and businesses of Long Beach?

This has been a brewing issue that is as much of a political hot potato locally as social security reform is nationally. No politician wants to be the first to jump on the "we have enough cops" bandwagon because as soon as s/he makes that statement sure enough the next day's paper will have news of some heinous crime. Balancing this is the huge percentage of the city budget that goes to pay for the police department. The city is facing budget deficits that reach into tens of millions, and while a recent agreement has been reached with the Long Beach Police Officers Association to trade current raises for future raises, the budget crisis has just passed one year down the road. What is left to trade?

How many cops are enough? For the past several years residents have been thrilled to hear reports from the LBPD that crime is down in all areas: violent crime, petty crimes, burglaries, crimes against people and crimes against property. Recently it was reported that crime in Long Beach had returned to levels of the early 1970's; but how many residents feel they can turn their kids loose all day the way many of us were turned loose during those times?

It seems as if we have had two different departments, one reports dropping crime rates and successful law enforcement efforts that have achieved those dropping rates; the other department goes to City Council and says more sworn personnel are needed to control crime in our city. How many cops are enough?

Long Beach is in litigation now with over 800 members of the force, the city is being sued for back pay and overtime by the officers for time spent pre- and post-shift putting on uniforms, cleaning weapons and cars and other tasks that must be fulfilled as part of their jobs but that are not done on the clock. This lawsuit has the city divided between those who seen the cops as trying to get the city to pay them what they deserve for fulfilling obligations of the job and those who see the officers as gold-diggers trying to squeeze more money from a broke city that could be using the resources spent fighting the suit elsewhere--not to mention the funds if the cops win. Against the backdrop of a city budget process that has already shown residents the millions and millions of dollars paid in overtime, members of the force are asking for more. If they win it will drastically change the budget for the department, increasing the pay for every officer who will now log overtime on every shift. How many cops are enough?

Residents and politicians need to ask: how much crime are we willing to tolerate? What is our level of comfort regarding crime? Ten murders, five rapes, 200 auto thefts, and 500 residential burglaries? Fifteen, twelve, 250 and 600? None, none, ten and 100? It seems an odd question to ask because the obvious answer is no one should tolerate any crime, but zero crime is a strong vision for a community but not a reality for an urban area of half a million people with a significant portion of the population living in poverty. So how much is enough? Are we satisfied with the current levels of crime?

How many cops are enough? Does the city need to reform the budget to hire more uniformed officers? Do we have enough cops on the street now that are obviously doing a great job as seen by the dropping crime rates? Are we at "acceptable" rates of crime and if so why do we need more cops? If the City loses the overtime lawsuit do we have to cut the number of officers on the police force because of budget constraints that will result?

These are the questions that will have to be answered by all serious candidates for the job of Top Cop in Long Beach. Even more important, these are questions that have to be answered by our City Manager and members of City Council. How many cops are enough?

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