LA city officials consider jail closures, staff reassignments

The Van Nuys Community Police Station houses the Van Nuys division jail.
The Van Nuys Community Police Station houses the Van Nuys division jail.

Los Angeles city officials are considering closing four or more division jails as a cost saving measure and reassigning staff to the Metropolitan Detention Center due to open downtown next year.

"These options are not good options — these are the least undesirable,'' Los Angeles Police Department Cmdr. Scott Kroeber told a joint meeting of the City Council's Public Safety Committee and the Board of Police Commissioners.

He said the Metropolitan Detention Center, built for about $74 million, will replace the Metropolitan Jail Section at Parker Center, located next door. It will also house offices of the LAPD's Property Division.

The new facility is 52,000 square feet larger than the old facility, and confines prisoners in separate areas called "pods.''

Because of way the cells are configured, operating the Metropolitan Detention Center is more labor-intensive, Kroeger said.

The original plan, approved in late 2009, was to hire 100 detention officers for the new facility. Kroeber said that is no longer an option, given the city's current financial state.

Instead, he recommended closing four of the city's division jails and reassigning their staff to the MDC. That way, the number of new hires can be reduced to 44 if the city does not proceed with furloughs or 55 if the furloughs proceed.

Kroeger said such a plan, which he dubbed Option 1, would reduce the city's overall jail capacity by 17 percent. Currently, the city has 1,323 jail beds; shutting down four division jails would reduce that number by 217 beds.

The division jails that would remain open under Option 1 would be the Pacific, Hollywood and Foothill division lockups.

Kroeger also presented Option 2, in which the Pacific Division jail would also be shut down. He said it would reduce overall jail capacity by 259 beds or 20 percent.

Option 3 calls for shutting all seven of the city's division jails to divert staffing to the MDC. That would reduce overall jail capacity by 27 percent, Kroeber said.

"We believe that, although rough around the edges, if it is properly and thoughtfully managed, these options, particularly Option 1, are viable options for getting through what will be a very difficult time,'' he said.

LAPD Asst. Chief Michel Moore estimated that hiring 120 detention officers would cost about $12 million annually, while hiring 44 detention officers would cost just under $5 million.

On the projected reduction in jail capacity, Moore said, "We believe it's a reduction that we will be able to manage through.''

Their assurances did not satisfy Councilman Dennis Zine, who warned that shutting down division jails would reduce efficiency because officers would be forced to spend a lot of time stuck in traffic to transport prisoners from one part of the city to another.

"We're going to be penny-wise and dollar foolish,'' he said.

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said hiring detention officers was not part of the budget but added, "It's absolutely necessary or we'll have to use other kind of personnel to staff the jail.''

"We're going to open the jail one way or the other,'' he said.

The Metropolitan Jail Section at the aging Parker Center must be vacated by January 2012, because of building code issues, according to Farrell.

Kroeber said the Property Division needs to move out of that facility and into the MDC as soon as possible.

He said its officers currently occupy the floors directly below the Metropolitan Jail Section and are "subject to some of the worst conditions that you can possibly imagine from an environmental standpoint.''

"On a regular basis, not frequently, the prisoners located in the jail above them in the MJS will stuff up the plumbing system and that human waste literally comes through the ceiling and through the walls,'' Kroeber said.

"These are circumstances under which they absolutely should not be working.''

The MDC was originally supposed to be completed by March 2008, but was delayed because of construction and staffing issues, according to Capt. Clay Farrell, commanding officer of the Jail Division.

The Public Safety Committee and Police Commission asked their analysts to review the options presented for staffing the new facility, with plans to hold another hearing within a few weeks. They said they would have to make a decision soon if they want to begin hiring in August.