GELFAND’S WORLD--The Los Angeles Police Department has 10 jails, including one in the harbor area (photos) that was recently constructed at substantial expense. But of those 10 LAPD jails, 4 are not being used. That total of the wasted and unused includes the new one in the harbor area. According to city representatives, there aren't enough available funds. The facilities are in place, but not the people to staff them. This has serious consequences for public safety.
The city also built a brand new police station in the harbor. It cost $40 million. The station was opened to great celebration and got plenty of press coverage, including an L.A. Times story which describes the new station, its helipad, and the jail.
So we have an expensively built jail project which would have served the southernmost part of the city, but doesn't. The loss is significant in terms of the efficiency by which police resources are used. For one thing, it's a 30 mile round trip every time the police make an arrest in this part of town.
Think about that last point. In order to book a prisoner, the police have to use the closest available LAPD facility, which is at 7600 South Broadway. This alternative is called the 77th Street Regional Jail. When the police make an arrest in San Pedro or Wilmington, the prisoner has to be transported 15 miles up the 110 followed by additional driving over city streets. That means that it's a half hour (or more) round trip each and every time, and this subtracts from available coverage of the harbor area.
We are not alone. In the L.A. basin, the Southwest Area Jail and the Wilshire Area Jail are closed. That leaves jails in the Pacific Area, Hollywood, and downtown to cover a large swath of the city.
In the Valley, two jails out of the total of three are being used. The Devonshire Area Jail is closed. That leaves facilities in Pacoima and Van Nuys to cover a huge area.
In one sense, this is an old story. It's easier to raise bond money to build things than to find the money to keep them running or to keep them in repair. We notice this when there is a recession. Local governments reduce expenses by cutting back on the long term maintenance that would extend the life of publicly owned facilities. When governments get squeezed even further, they start to cut even short term maintenance.
And when they get really squeezed, they close things down or, in this case, hold off from opening them.
In the case of those LAPD jails, the official terminology is that the four are "temporarily closed." We might see this as optimism on the part of our city officials -- they plan to open the other 4 jails when financial times improve. Of course the term "temporary" is a little vague. It might mean 3 or 4 years more, or it might mean a lot more. At meetings where members of the public can ask questions, the city officials don't offer us any specifics.
At some public meetings I've seen, the LAPD representatives have been badgered by the public about the situation. It's entirely unfair of course, because it's not the uniformed officers in the district who make this decision. Actually, when you talk to the police officers who go out on patrol, they are the first to agree that they are understaffed and could use more help.
And that's what leads to the next point. If it's not the local police, who does make the decision to keep all these jails closed? It's not going to be a deep revelation that this kind of decision comes out of the city's budget process. Could the city find the dollars to open the Harbor Area Jail if it were considered a weighty enough priority? Obviously it could. But that decision would come at the cost of other priorities.
So the harbor is stuck with a police presence that is effectively reduced. The official count of police officers stays approximately unchanged, but they spend less time patrolling the streets and responding to calls because they are on the road transporting prisoners.
I've dwelled on the situation in the harbor because it is close to home and has come up here repeatedly in public discussions. But you can make the same argument about the other parts of town. When the San Fernando Valley (at least that part that is located in the city of L.A.) has lost one-third of its jails, that has to have a significant effect. I would imagine that the valley's 34 neighborhood councils are concerned about the level of police services, including the potential services that are lost due to unnecessary drive times.
It's always a matter of priorities, and city budgets are the true definition of what the real priorities are. Money, as they like to say, is our way of keeping score. In this case, the game involves whether we buy fire trucks or pay higher salaries to city workers or, in this case, pay for people to work the jails. It reminds me of the old joke about buying things: There's price, quality, and service -- pick any two. To put it in political terms, we can't have everything because we don't have unlimited tax dollars. I suspect that the grand opening of the Harbor Area Jail won't happen until this recession is well behind us.
(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for City Watch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Vol 13 Issue 100
Pub: Dec 11, 2015