Years of budget cuts have so diminished staffing at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department that response times to 9-1-1 calls have slowed and crime solving is being compromised.
That’s the assessment of the department’s own top brass, union chief and members of the county Board of Supervisors.
The board today will consider looking at the “unintended consequences” of a program that had slashed overtime expenses by having deputies abandon their own duties eight hours a week to cover for absent colleagues.
“It’s a ‘good news, bad news’ situation,” said Steve Whitmore, spokesman for Sheriff Lee Baca.
“We have stayed within our budget but there are impacts,” he added. “We’ve been transparent when it comes to backlogs and slower response times. ”
Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs President Floyd Hayhurst complained the current number of deputies — about 7,500 — is the lowest in almost decade.
“There’s fewer deputies out in the field, particularly in the unincorporated areas, now than there ever has been before,” he said.
By Hayhurst’s count, the department shrank by 500 deputies just in the last five years, because it avoided hiring replacements for those who retire, resign or are fired; and slowed recruitment. He noted it has canceled or reduced the size of several classes at the academy.
Meanwhile, the remaining deputies are stretched too thinly.
In 2010, Baca began implementing the Cadre Administrative Reserve Personnel (CARP) program to cope with a $128-million budget cut that fiscal year.
The program reduces overtime costs by having the department’s administrative, investigative and training staff set aside 20 percent of their workweek doing front line jobs, such as patrol duties.
In a report to the board last November, Baca conceded, “the continued budgetary curtailments erode the department’s public safety mission. ”
He said, “Field Operations Regions are continuing to report extended response times to calls for service. ”
“Detective Division reports hundreds of investigative hours lost each month,” Baca added. “Follow-up on leads of active criminal cases, including homicide investigations, were postponed. ”
Jail staffing, gang suppression, parole/probation compliance checks, community-oriented policing, and many other services have also taken a hit.
“The department is making every effort to ensure public safety is not compromised as a result of our overtime reduction measures,” Baca wrote in the report. “However, despite our best efforts, we have experienced a notable decrease in departmental efficiency as we strive to fulfill our budgetary obligations. ”
The department did not specify how much their response times had slowed.
“It’s very difficult to even provide an average, because we cover such a diverse geographic area,” Whitmore said
A report by Auditor-Controller Wendy Watanabe earlier this year, however, said deputies’ average response to an emergency call in unincorporated areas was 5.8 minutes, compared to 4.8 minutes in cities and agencies that have a contract with the department to provide law enforcement.
The report did not compare response times before and after CARP was implemented.
Hayhurst said the understaffing means crime victims cannot automatically expect detectives to immediately investigate their cases. The delays can compromise leads, which means some cases may never solved.
“I can tell you this: if your house got broken into and nobody actually saw someone coming out of it, deputies don’t have the time or the ability to go door-to-door asking neighbors if they saw any strange cars,” he said. “And you’re not going to get a fingerprinting team out there for at least two weeks. ”
Hayhurst asked, “What homeowner is going to leave their house untouched for two weeks?”
He complained the understaffing also puts deputies’ lives in danger, and forces them to do without needed reinforcements.
Occasionally, Hayhurst admitted, this has resulted in their reaching for their gun and resorting to force.
Whitmore stressed that crime has remained at historic lows, even though the department is understaffed.
“I think it’s because the Sheriff’s Department is working smarter,” he said. “Technology has certainly helped, and the community is more involved than ever before, coming forward to give us information that helps solve cases.”
The department’s Administrative Services Division Director Glen Dragovich said $36.6 million in funding would be enough to do away with CARP.
However, the department is also reeling from a $22-million increase in workers’ compensation and retiree health insurance costs.
It almost lost another $22 million, but the county agreed – this fiscal year only – to provide that funding to cover unavoidable overtime. It’s unclear whether the funding will remain during the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Supervisors Michael Antonovich and Zev Yaroslavsky were concerned enough about understaffing to file a motion asking for a review of CARP’s “unintended consequences.”
“Between March 2010 and April 2013, CARPing has resulted in 1,517,360 hours of lost investigative, training, administrative, supervisory and specialized services,” Antonovich’s spokesman, Tony Bell, said in an email. “A plan that phases out CARPing is critical to the Sheriff’s delivery of quality law enforcement services.”
“CARP was a good idea at a time when budgets were stressed, but it’s not a sustainable long-term policy,” Yaroslavky said, in an interview.
“I’m not suggesting we eliminate it in one fell swoop,” he said. “I think we do it in stages — if we do it at all — when we’re in a better financial condition than we have been.”