Crime & Justice

LA police union says city patrolled by 'ghost cars'

LAPD patrol cars are parked outside of Staples Center on June 16, 2010 before Game 7 of the NBA Finals in downtown Los Angeles
LAPD patrol cars are parked outside of Staples Center on June 16, 2010 before Game 7 of the NBA Finals in downtown Los Angeles
Collin Robinson/KPCC

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The Los Angeles police inspector general is investigating whether some high-level supervisors have been over-reporting how many patrol cars are on the street in order to meet department goals.

Union officials, who submitted the complaint, refer to the patrol vehicles that are not on the street when they are reported to be as "ghost cars."

The investigation began when union officers complained to the Los Angeles Police Commission and the inspector general about patrol officers who were supposed to be assigned to light or desk duty because of an injury or other condition but are asked to sign in to work as if they were in a patrol car.

LAPD Detective David Nunez, a delegate for the Los Angeles Police Protective League, said he complained to the police commission and the inspector general, saying it’s “unsafe for the community and the officers.”

The inspector general's office says it will issue a report on the complaint by mid-August.

The probe comes at a contentious time for the city, the police department and the union. LAPPL members voted down a proposed contract earlier this month largely because it didn’t include pay raises for rank-and-file officers. Members also say they’re frustrated with low morale and working conditions.

In a video posted online, the police union says the city's cuts to the LAPD budget have created a staffing shortage for patrols.  “Budget cuts are also impacting regular patrols in our neighborhoods,” the video says. “While in divisions like Van Nuys, there are supposed to be nine units on patrol. On any given day, the actual number of patrol cars hovers at three.”

The LAPD breaks each of its 21 divisions into eight to 10 small neighborhoods the department calls “basic car” areas. It is the police department’s goal to have one police car staffed with two officers assigned to patrol each small area.

Commander Andrew Smith, spokesperson for the LAPD, said he couldn’t confirm whether patrol cars in Van Nuys had dropped to three cars, as the union alleges, but acknowledged the police department hasn’t been able to fulfill its commitment of one patrol car per small basic car area.

“For years we haven’t been able to do that because so many of a our basic cars had to be dropped because we were losing officers to compensatory time off,” Smith said.

The LAPD’s Office of Operations uses a formula called a "patrol plan" that determines how many officers should be assigned to each area, according to Smith. Area division commanders are told to meet a certain percentage or level of staffing based on the plan. The formula is based on time of the year, crime rates, the number of calls for service, officer availability and other variables.

“Office of Operations will typically say, 'I want you to meet 80 percent or 90 percent or 100 percent of your patrol plan depending on the season we are in and the types of crimes that are occurring,'” Smith said.

Union officials accuse commanders of falsely reporting that they have more officers in patrol cars working the streets than they actually do in order to meet department patrol goals. 

Low patrol staffing could contribute to longer response times, but Smith said the LAPD has been able to generally stay under its goal of seven minutes per emergency call.