L.A.’s next mayor may struggle to hire more cops

With violent crime in Los Angeles near a decade high, several leading candidates for mayor are campaigning on promises to put more police officers on the streets.

U.S. Rep. Karen Bass wants to move hundreds of officers out from behind desks and get the department to its fully authorized strength. City Atty. Mike Feuer wants 500 more officers on the force. Billionaire developer Rick Caruso and City Councilman Joe Buscaino, a former cop himself, have both said they want to hire 1,500 more officers, which would bring the Los Angeles Police Department’s sworn force to about 11,000.

But fulfilling such campaign promises won’t be easy, according to LAPD officials and overseers — not just because of fiscal constraints and still-rumbling efforts to “defund” police, but because of an administrative bottleneck in the hiring process that has throttled recruitment since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Despite the City Council authorizing an LAPD force of about 9,700 sworn officers this fiscal year, the department remains hundreds of officers short of that and is backsliding further.

Last week, there were 9,505 sworn officers on the force. As of Tuesday, there were 9,440. And the blame, Chief Michel Moore and other police officials have said, lies with the city’s Personnel Department, which conducts background checks and moves candidates through the application process.

Moore said the LAPD has plenty of applicants, but they wait months to hear back. The bottleneck is so severe that each of the last four Police Academy classes had fewer than 40 recruits — down from an average of 50 to 60 — and the incoming class is closer to 30. And that’s despite the LAPD loaning 33 of its own staff to help clear the backlog.

Moore told the Police Commission last week that he didn’t expect the department to meet its goal of reaching its authorized strength and that new recruitment this year would “at best” match attrition from retirements and other departures.

LAPD Deputy Chief Dominic Choi painted an even more dire picture, telling the commission this week that because of a wave of retirements this quarter, he doubted the department would even match attrition.

Several members of the commission expressed frustration with the bottleneck, and one, Steve Soboroff, questioned what it meant for the big promises of more officers on the campaign trail.

“What you’re describing is a situation where we can’t even retain our existing number,” he said to Moore.

“We need to increase the velocity of the testing process so that a person who comes in and applies to be a member of this organization in the month of February is in an April or May [academy] class,” the police chief said. “The most immediate goal is to increase production of the applicant pool and to ensure that no qualified candidate is waiting to become a member of this organization.”

Alex Comisar, Mayor Eric Garcetti’s communications director, said the “pandemic-driven budget crisis” forced the city to freeze hiring, including in the Personnel Department, which limited the number of people who could conduct the complicated background checks needed for police recruits.

“The Personnel Department is working as quickly as possible with the LAPD to streamline the recruitment and review process,” Comisar said.

As of this week, violent crime in L.A. was up 3.7% compared with this time last year. Homicides and shootings were down from last year, but still up significantly from where they stood in 2020. Robberies were up 16% over last year, and robberies committed with firearms were up 38% from last year and more than 52% compared with 2020, the LAPD said.

Mayoral candidates said that fixing this bureaucratic slowdown would be a priority when they assumed office. They all said the department shouldn’t lower its standards for candidates or background checks — but it should be able to conduct those checks faster.

Buscaino said that getting the LAPD to 11,000 sworn officers “is absolutely possible but will require leadership from a mayor who has done their homework and knows how to navigate the hoops of city bureaucracy.”

“While my opponents talk about their plans, I’ve already gotten to work cutting red tape so LAPD can bring on the sworn officers and civilian employees the department needs to keep Angelenos safe,” Buscaino said.

Like other council members, Buscaino has put funding from his council offices directly toward LAPD overtime to put more officers on the streets in his district.

As mayor, he said, he would prioritize hiring civilians for LAPD jobs currently being worked by sworn officers and move those officers onto the street; hire more background investigators and improve technology in the Personnel Department; and incentivize temporary or permanent transfers to personnel from other city departments.

Caruso, who entered the race last month and previously led the Police Commission, said that “we can’t spend months waiting for an applicant’s information to be processed, we must cut it down to days.”

He didn’t offer details of how he’d speed up this process, but said, “for police hiring we need to have an efficient but comprehensive process that focuses not just on a candidate’s background but also on their skill set, commitment to the community, and most importantly, to upholding the trust of the people.”

Councilman Kevin de León, also a candidate for mayor, said it’s not the job of a prospective mayor “to blindly promise thousands of more officers just to grab headlines.” He noted he voted for the budget that authorizes 9,700 officers and wants to see the department get to that level.

“We need to make sure we have a much more efficient process so we can break through the bottleneck and get us to what we’re budgeted for,” he said, though he didn’t dig into how he’d make that process go faster.

Bass said that when the public feels unsafe, the reflex from candidates is to make big promises of many more cops. She said she instead wants to take “a much more comprehensive view” of public safety that encompasses social programs geared toward crime prevention and intervention.

At the same time, Bass said, people in certain neighborhoods across the city have told her they want more cops on the street, and the department should be able to reach its currently authorized force of about 9,700 to ensure they are out there as intended.

If issues in the Personnel Department are preventing that from happening, “we should certainly see what that problem is,” she said. In the meantime, the department should move more sworn officers out from desks to work the streets.

Feuer said the bottleneck issue is one “of priorities and execution” — and that the Personnel Department clearly “has to ramp up” to be able to move applications faster. He’d rearrange the mayoral administration to ensure that personnel issues are dealt with swiftly through the lens of public safety, and that those in charge at the Personnel Department are held to account.

“Obviously a key measure for the Personnel Department is going to be, are you processing these applicants fast enough to meet the needs of the [Police] Department, so we don’t end up having classes that are less than full, but rather, we have classes that are full of quality applicants,” Feuer said.

Another candidate, businessman Mel Wilson, who also wants 11,000 sworn officers, said the ability to hire police officers is a basic necessity for the city, and one that the police chief and the head of the Personnel Department should be held accountable for.

“We just say to them, ‘Look, this is Priority No. 1. You want to continue on being in the position that you’re in, you need to make sure this is a high priority, not only for you but for everybody that works underneath you,’” Wilson said. “It’s just a matter of letting people know.”

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