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It's About Public Safety

A recent LA Times editorial underestimated my relationship with Mayor Villaraigosa relative to the Airport Police issue and my reasons for voicing my opinion about the potential public safety effects of the Airport Police at LAX seeking new policing and pension benefits. The Mayor and I have always had and continue to enjoy a solid relationship based on mutual respect and trust. I am comfortable with my role, and the Mayor is comfortable, I am sure, with his role as the City’s Chief Executive and the ultimate decision-maker. So, just to be clear, there is no tension between us, no matter how much the pundits at the LA Times would like to create that kind of City Hall drama. The Mayor and I are just fine. Thank you.

I meet one on one with the Mayor on a regular basis, and he relies on me, as he relies on his other general managers, to provide him with advice and counsel and, most of all, my opinion on issues related to the safety and security of Los Angeles. A significant part of that safety equation is the Los Angeles International Airport, the highest identified terrorist target on the West Coast.

Now, about the airport - The editorial and the LA Times news story upon which it is apparently based (June 2, 2006: Bratton Rips Proposal of LAX Police) are significantly inaccurate. As my hero Sergeant Joe Friday would say, here are “just the facts,” relating to the so-called controversy between the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department (LAWAPD) and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), as I understand them and my opinion on what needs to take place.

The LAWAPD is an 830.33 agency, according to the California Penal Code (PC). This means that according to State law, LAWAPD officers are only allowed to function as peace officers in or about a property owned and or administered by their employer, the Los Angeles World Airports. The LAWAPD is seeking, through State legislation, 830.1 PC status, which would allow them peace officer status anywhere in the State of California. This seems like a minor change, but the repercussions for security, liability, and City expense are potentially significant. Not reported in both the poorly researched news accounts and the editorial is another underlying motivation – a change in pension status that offers significant financial and disability benefits to LAWAPD officers, which I have taken no position on since it doesn’t affect public safety at the airport.

In reference to their police powers, this status change would allow LAWAPD officers to, among other things, make vehicle stops, engage in vehicle pursuits outside of the airport, serve search warrants anywhere in the city or state, and to form and deploy a special weapons team and bomb squad. What is potentially problematic and certainly more costly in terms of liability and inefficiency is to have two equally empowered police agencies both with “primary responsibility” operating in the same arena.

The Penal Code recognizes the need for the Chief of the City police department to exercise a measure of control over other agencies operating within his or her jurisdiction by stipulating that the Chief may confer “full” peace officer status on officers serving within the City’s jurisdiction. The current tiered configuration allows the Chief of Police the appropriate level of control over law enforcement activities in the jurisdiction for which the Chief is ultimately responsible. By going to the Legislature, the Los Angeles World Airports is effectively side stepping the existing Penal Code provisions governing the matter and cutting the Mayor, the Police Chief, and the City Council out of a process on an issue that should be their decision, not that of a state body.

Last year, after a long and arduous debate regarding the responsibilities of the LAWAPD versus the LAPD and calls for a possible merger, a City Charter amendment reaffirmed that the LAWAPD reports to the Los Angeles World Airports Board. The Charter amendment did not directly address areas of mutual concern or the status of LAWAPD officers as defined by the California Penal Code. Effectively, the issue of a merger was put on the “back burner” and the two agencies agreed to forge ahead and work closely on the security of the airport. For the record, my previous comments misinterpreted by the LA Times not withstanding, I believe that the LAWAPD is very good at what they currently do, but they are not equipped to do it all and here’s why.

The LAWAPD currently lacks the stringent hiring and background standards of the LAPD. LAWAPD officers do not receive the extensive training afforded to LAPD officers, they are understaffed, and do not possess nor do they need the legal right to perform many of the essential duties that LAPD officers perform on a daily basis. They have a limited mission, and the powers they seek would diminish not enhance their focused efforts at the airport. The bottom line is that when faced with a major emergency, the LAPD resources far outweigh the resources of the airport police, both in terms of overall expertise and sheer numbers. The LAWAPD could never be sufficiently staffed to deal with emergencies and catastrophes that would require the much larger resources and capabilities of the LAPD. It would simply be too expensive to maintain.

As I previously mentioned, it is no secret that I believe and have believed all along that we should move to merge the agencies in order to better secure LAX, one of the nation’s foremost terrorist targets. I do recognize that this opinion is unpopular and politically not viable at the moment. The fact remains, however, that the LAWAPD cannot perform this important mission on its own. In addition to a full-time complement of 53 LAPD officers permanently assigned to the airport, the LAPD has been staffing the airport with overtime details to the tune of nearly one million dollars per month. Even with this expenditure, it is still much more efficient to staff these posts with LAPD officers on an overtime basis than it would be to hire full-time equivalent LAWAPD officers with the commensurate levels of benefits. The current configuration allows for more flexibility to reduce or expand the staffing at the airport in response to the threat level. It also allows us to have a ready reserve already in place at the airport in case of an emergency. LAWAPD would have to hire and deploy at least 140 more officers to assume the basic responsibility of manning the security checkpoints where LAPD officers on overtime are now deployed. Based even on the most liberal hiring practices and reduced training time, it would take them years to accomplish that large increase in their force so as not to risk a decrease in the quality of their personnel.

Accepting that any kind of merger is not possible at this juncture, how do we perform an important unified mission with two separate agencies that may end up with overlapping or misunderstood responsibilities? The answer: through a Memorandum of Agreement.

The LAPD, at my direction, has worked out the terms of a new MOA with the LAWAPD. The new MOA is based on mutually agreed upon solutions to interagency issues that we have identified together since the last MOA was signed in 1988. The new MOA covers issues ranging from investigative responsibility to vehicle pursuits, to use of force policy and investigative procedures, and the deployment of special weapons teams. Operationally, the agencies have come to an agreement, the City Attorney has weighed in and, since March 7, 2006, I have been waiting for the airport leadership to sign this essential public safety document. Here is an additional concern that I have. I am unsure if the bill passes how LAWAPD’s status will affect the relationship between the two agencies and the way we work together to ensure the safety of the City of Los Angeles both at the airport and outside of the airport environment. It will probably, at a minimum, require significant renegotiation of the new MOA.

So, given all of that, in addition to getting the MOA signed, here’s the solution I propose. Regardless of whether or not the legislation passes affording the LAWAPD 830.1 status, all future LAWAPD police recruits should go through the same rigorous background employment screening and recruit training that LAPD applicants receive. I am offering to train their personnel at our academy. Both agencies, and more importantly public safety at the airport would be enhanced by this coordinating effort.

If afforded 830.1 status, then by all means LAWAPD officers should rightfully receive the same benefits as their LAPD counterparts; and in return for the enhanced responsibilities, LAWAPD should adhere to same hiring standards and background investigations and training requirements as the LAPD. This will help to ensure that the airport continues to be staffed by high-quality officers who are better trained and equipped to complete their public safety mission and work with their counterparts at the LAPD.

In the end, let me assure everyone that the LAPD officers assigned to the airport work very well with their brother and sister officers from LAWAPD. Should a major incident occur, I am sure that the men and women of both of these law enforcement agencies will perform admirably despite the current situation. As far as the boots on the ground are concerned there is no turf war, just good cops doing their best to secure our travelling public.

The “turf war” is a creation of the press. My focus and concern is public safety, not turf, and I will continue to speak out on that issue whenever I feel it is necessary. Fortunately I work for a Mayor who is confident enough and smart enough to not want to surround himself with a bunch of “yes men” telling him only what they think he wants to hear. Sorry LA Times – you are missing the real story on this one.

Chief William J. Bratton