July 18, 2002
Secession: Rolling the Dice With Public Safety
Any experienced law-enforcement professional knows that coordination and communication make all the difference in a complex case or threat situation.
During my final trial as a federal prosecutor, my co-counsel and I coordinated the efforts of five federal law-enforcement agencies to obtain an involuntary servitude conviction. Each agency offered its own particular expertise, but each also added an additional layer of bureaucracy that made doing the right thing more challenging.
My law enforcement background compels me to question the impact of the proposed secession of the San Fernando Valley on public safety. Because creating two cities out of Los Angeles will increase the complexity of our law enforcement challenges, secession is irresponsible from a public safety perspective.
There are only three alternatives for the provision of public safety services if the Valley secedes: 1) Create a new police department from scratch; 2) Contract for law enforcement with the remaining City of Los Angeles; or 3) Contract with another provider, such as the County of Los Angeles. An examination of each alternative shows why secession is misguided.
Create a New Police Department
Selecting a police chief and recruiting, training, organizing and supervising thousands of new officers would be an immediate and challenging undertaking for a fledgling government. With no precedent for forming a new force, the new city is likely to struggle to meet basic service needs as it figures out the fundamentals of preserving public safety. With every police department in the state having difficulty with recruitment, there is no reason to believe a Valley police department could be readily staffed with greater success.
Let's be blunt -- if pro-secession forces have a plan to create a new police department for the Valley from scratch, it is a closely held secret.
Moreover, in a crisis such as the North Hollywood shootout of 1997, highly trained, specialized officers are essential to resolving a dangerous situation. Yet there is no plan for the creation of, for example, specialized SWAT, bomb squad, domestic violence, gang, or gun enforcement teams for the Valley. Valley residents have no reason to have any confidence that the leaders behind the secession movement would have any success in creating from scratch fully functioning emergency services departments on whom their families' lives would depend. Even if a fledgling police department were created, its separation from the LAPD would hinder the ability to surge regionwide law-enforcement resources to conduct crime suppression activities.
Contract with the City of Los Angeles
While it is possible for a Valley city to contract for emergency services with the City of Los Angeles, why on earth would this be preferable for Valley residents than the status quo? Why would any Valley resident wish to be a customer-once-removed from the LAPD, rather than a constituent?
Let me give two examples. Recently several Jewish youth were assaulted by skinheads in the Beverlywood neighborhood in my district. Through the efforts of my office, the LAPD was persuaded to beef-up patrols during Shabbat. I am very conscious of the potential for hate crimes in my district, and I will not hesitate to demand additional police resources if they are needed to protect my constituents.
Another residential area of my district has been plagued by dangerous speeding during rush hour. My office, responding to the requests of our constituents, has coordinated sweeps and increased traffic enforcement efforts. One recent effort involved hillside neighborhoods including Sherman Oaks, Encino, Studio City, Beverly Glen, Hollywood and Bel Air, and dozens of officers who were redeployed from other areas of the city for the crackdown. As a separate city contracting with Los Angeles, Valley residents would lack the ability to put political pressure on their representatives for targeted law enforcement.
Contract with the County of Los Angeles
Sheriff Lee Baca has responded to recent cuts in his budget by releasing criminals from the L.A. County Jail. County supervisors have in turn accused the sheriff of financially mismanaging his department. Without taking sides in this dispute, Valley residents should not tie their fates to this ongoing budget drama -- again, one over which they would have no direct control.
For a while, secession advocates suggested the new city could contract with the sheriff for services for tens of millions of dollars less than LAPD. They ignored the fact that the basic contract for sheriff's law enforcement does not include such services as senior lead officers, a crime lab, motorcycle patrols, gang intervention, SWAT teams or an anti-terrorist unit, among others.
Secessionists seem to have since dropped the idea of contracting with the sheriff and instead focused on contracting with LAPD. In reality, a contract with LAPD may be the only logical course for the new city. Any large incident, from a hillside fire to a terrorist act, is likely to affect people on both sides of the hills, and any major crisis will require a coordinated response of emergency personnel from all divisions, which would be best accomplished with the same department serving both areas.
Which brings us back to the question: why secede if the Valley is going to contract with the LAPD for the same services it receives now while giving up political influence over the department?
If areas of Los Angeles break away, their new bureaucracies could further complicate the serious challenges of law enforcement in our neighborhoods and may leave gaps in service. The most basic responsibility of local government is to provide for public safety. If a new city can't meet this essential need, who will tell the crime victims and families that their safety is at greater risk because secession voters chose to take a chance on Camelot? I couldn't ask crime victims to take a chance on bureaucrats and politicians when I was a federal prosecutor, and I won't begin now.