Civilians, not cops, would respond to some police calls under proposed budget

In an effort to save money, Long Beach police could start sending civilians to some low-level crime calls if the city sticks with a budget proposal that cuts $10.3 million dollars from the department.

This would include hiring 16 “community service assistants” who would respond to lower-priority non-violent 911 calls that primarily end up being for property thefts. These assistants would be uniformed but unarmed, according to the proposed budget. They could also respond to non-injury traffic collisions, noise complaints and parking calls, City Manager Tom Modica said.

In all, the proposed budget would cut 34 police officer positions and create 29 new civilian jobs, something that would save the department $5.2 million. Modica praised the plan as a significant step toward balancing the books that were upended by the coronavirus, but it’s already gotten pushback from both sides of the debate over defunding police.

The union representing Long Beach police officers and the Long Beach chapter of Black Lives Matter both quickly criticized the proposal, saying it either goes too far or not far enough.

The fine details of the plan aren’t available yet—only draft plans for the new civilian employees have been developed so far—but Modica said they would be hired by the city’s civil service commission and trained by the police department. This model is already being used in a similar way in Lakewood, Downey, Cerritos and Huntington Beach, a police spokeswoman said.

The police officer positions being cut are primarily administrative in nature, according to the LBPD, allowing the sworn officers who already do these jobs to be redeployed into the field. The city has pledged to avoid laying off any officers even if their current jobs are shifted to civilians. The cost savings would come through attrition and retirements, according to the city.

In addition to the community service assistants, the budget would replace five officers with civilian property clerks who would be responsible for equipment repairs and maintenance. One detective position would be converted to a crime analyst and police investigator. Several administrative analyst positions would be created to replace sworn officers on the warrant detail and a West Division lieutenant position.

The LBPD would also civilianize the helicopter air support unit by eliminating six sworn pilots and adding two civilian pilots. The K-9 team would also be reduced from 10 to seven officers and would continue to use police dogs to help apprehend suspects and conduct bomb, explosive and narcotics detection, according to the budget.

It’s not clear yet whether that means the helicopter and K-9s would have to be used less frequently, but the budget proposal noted the helicopter operation schedule would be “reassessed and aligned with calls for service trends and patterns.”

Despite trimming back on officers, the department will still hold a police academy this year because it’s expecting more retirements than normal, Modica said. But if there’s not enough attrition to bring down costs, the city will avoid layoffs by using funds from Measure A sales tax revenues.

The department would still employ around 800 sworn officers and 400 civilians, but the changes would go a long way to meeting the city’s overall cost-savings goal of $30 million. LBPD was asked to cut about $10.3 million to meet the deficit created by the coronavirus pandemic. Modica said they met that goal even though their budget is only about $4 million less than the $264 million they got last year. Modica said the LBPD cuts actually amount to $10.3 million if you take into account the typical year-over-year growth in the department’s bottom line.

“I think this is a really strong budget. I think we responded to the crisis at hand. We made some significant reductions in the area of public safety, which is the largest part of our budget—over 70% goes to police and fire and so that naturally is going to be one of the largest areas you’re going to reduce in,” Modica said. “I think it’s looking at civilianization. I think it’s reducing services where needed and it is our way to address the budget. Plus, we’re adding in the area of reconciliation and racial equity.”

He pointed to the $1.5 million allocated for adding positions for youth and violence prevention and mental health.

Still, advocates for shifting funds away from the police department aren’t happy. They want to give more money to city agencies they think are better equipped to handle mental health and homelessness, issues that often end up drawing a police response.

“The defunding has to do with a divestment from criminalization and an investment in community,” said Dawn Modkins, of Black Lives Matter Long Beach. “And that divestment is from the type of work that police do that is work that belongs to other professions.”

The Long Beach Police Officers Association is also critical of the budget, except from the opposite end of the spectrum.

Association president Rich Chambers called the civilianization of some jobs a “recipe for disaster,” saying low-priority calls can become emergencies quickly. He pointed to a deadly shooting in 2017 in which a Whittier police officer was killed while responding to a crash. Police said the suspect had first shot his cousin to death in East Los Angeles before stealing his car and later crashing it into another car in Whittier.

“Police officers never know what they are walking into when they arrive at a call,” Chambers said. He said that while he knows the city needs to make cuts, the police department should not have been required to make “such severe” cuts and that public safety should be the city’s top priority.

For her part, Modkins questioned the need for the police department to be involved at all for low-level calls and pointed to the fact that overall crime rates have dropped significantly in recent years.

“If its non-emergency work, it probably belongs to other departments because police should only be dealing with emergencies that are related to life-threatening emergencies,” Modkins said. “The dispatcher needs to ask those questions: ‘Is someone’s life in danger?’ ‘No.’ ‘Great, we’ll send this department.’”

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Valerie Osier is the Social Media & Newsletter Manager for the Long Beach Post. She started at the Post in 2018 as a breaking news reporter. She’s a Riverside native who found her love for journalism while at community college. She graduated from the Cal State Long Beach journalism program in 2017 and covered the Palos Verdes Peninsula for the Daily Breeze prior to coming to the Post. She lives in Long Beach with her husband and two cats.
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