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Analysis

LASD Fights Accountability on Overbilling in West Hollywood 

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has been caught overbilling WeHo, so they’ve enlisted local media to help push false crime narratives.

Five Sheriff's deputies are surrounding one car in West Hollywood.
West Hollywood Sheriff’s deputies stopping a car in WeHo. Photo by Chris Yarzab

In February 2021, an anonymous deputy at the Compton station of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) contacted city officials with allegations of rampant billing fraud. Those allegations led to an explosive lawsuit by the City of Compton against LASD, with claims for breach of contract, intentional misrepresentation, negligent misrepresentation, concealment, false promise, and unfair competition.

In the course of reporting on the Compton story, the LA Times spoke to another sheriff’s deputy who made similar claims about West Hollywood division. Specifically, that “he was asked to fabricate records to show a deputy who was stuck at home because of an injury was out in a patrol car to ‘burn’ minutes.” Following that request, he noticed “a handful of times when the station’s computer system showed deputies being on patrol whom he knew were not.”

The LASD contracts with 42 different cities across LA County to provide public safety services. Now, after years of opaque and ballooning budgets, some cities are questioning whether they’re getting their money’s worth. West Hollywood spends about $20 million annually to contract with LASD. But over the last year, those initial claims of fraudulent billing have raised questions about how little leverage cities have in the contracting process.

A bar showing the cost of one Sheriff's deputy - $125k.219 base salary, $102,220 in benefits, ad $69,600 in 'overhead'
One deputy costs $69,600 in “overhead,” which isn’t detailed to the contract city.

Nika Soon-Shiong was appointed to West Hollywood’s Public Safety Commission in September 2021. Minutes of Public Safety Commission meetings between September 2021 and February 2022 show that Commissioner Soon-Shiong repeatedly asked for information “regarding how deputies manage and track their time, including how overtime is managed” and “for clarification regarding Sheriff billing and staffing.”

Per a memo dated March 7, 2022, Commissioner Soon-Shiong had contacted Civilytics Consulting, an independent data science firm, for assistance in finding and analyzing that data, and presented the preliminary analysis to the commission on February 14, 2022. 

That Civilytics report concluded that there is a “lack of transparency” in the LASD contract process, and that identifying LASD costs “is a time-consuming effort that is impossible to accurately complete from existing publicly available documents.”

Since these findings were presented on February 14, LASD has provided contradictory responses. In a written public statement on February 17, 2022, Sheriff Alex Villanueva stated that $297,039 was the correct annual billable rate of a “40 hour non-relief Deputy Sheriff Service Unit.”

West Hollywood’s LASD station captain, Edward Ramirez, later clarified that for each deputy, the city is charged $125,219 in salary, $102,220 in benefits, and $69,600 in overhead, for a total of $297,039. However, LASD has yet to explain how that $69,600 is allocated between costs like supervision, clerical and administrative support, vehicle maintenance, office supplies, etc. 

LASD’s Patrol Division had $71 million in overtime expenses in its last fiscal year. Sheriff Villanueva’s February 17 statement claims that LASD “absorbs” overtime costs and does not bill them to contract cities. In the previous paragraph, Villanueva instead writes that overtime is included in the $297,039 base rate, to recover the overtime costs incurred the previous year.

That number is averaged across contract cities, so if sheriffs in Beverly Hills or Culver City use a lot more overtime than sheriffs in West Hollywood, West Hollywood still must bear that cost the following year. In other words, contract cities are billed for overtime, but later and without any accountability for how — or where — those overtime hours were spent.

In fact, there isn’t any way for contract cities like West Hollywood to track how sheriff deputies use their time, or to what extent that time is spent in other contract cities or unincorporated areas. They can only decide how many minutes of sheriff time to purchase. And that time has become a lot more expensive over the last ten years: according to the Civilytics report, the average cost per LASD full-time equivalent (“FTE”) unit is now over $300,000, compared to $170,000 a decade ago. 

West Hollywood’s contract with LASD has ballooned from $8 million to $20 million since 2012. Adjusting for inflation, that’s still a 100% increase. Per the Civilytics report, violent crime rates in West Hollywood between 2012 and 2020 are relatively flat. Regardless of whether crime is increasing, decreasing, or static year over year, LASD’s demand remains constant: more money. 

On February 14, 2022, the Public Safety Commission voted to recommend reallocating 17% of that $20 million contract to West Hollywood’s $5 million social services budget. That 17% represents the amount of time LASD’s West Hollywood division reportedly spends on homelessness and mental health issues. 

At the next Public Safety Commission meeting, on March 14, 2022, LASD reported that there had been a 137% increase in “Part One Crimes” in February 2022, compared to February 2021.

A bar graph being from the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department showing that increases in crimes are limited to grand theft, petty theft,, and vehicle burglary.
LASD’s own crime charts show that violent crime in WeHo has not risen.

Local media outlets quickly parroted that number as evidence of a West Hollywood crime wave. KTLA and Los Angeles magazine wrote that Part One Crimes include “murder, rape, burglary, aggravated assault, arson, and human trafficking.” Fox instead quoted “authorities” that “some common crimes include aggravated assault, murder, rape, burglaries, arson, and human trafficking.” 

One source routinely quoted in these pieces as a “security expert” is Russell Stuart, who owns a gun store in Beverly Hills, explored a run for Beverly Hills City Council, and has called for Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer (stylized as “Führer” on his social media post) to lift vaccine mandates. West Hollywood site WehoVille has been on a blitz against Soon-Shiong’s plan, publishing articles with contributors calling her “Miss Soon Chung,” and sounding the alarm on her “conspirators” and “faction.” Sheriff Villanueva has also attacked Soon-Shiong on his Facebook Live. 

Conveniently missing from these outlets’ reporting is the most common Part One crime: theft. The LA Sheriff’s February report shows that over 75% of those reported crimes were theft, and if the other property crimes are included — burglary and grand theft auto — that number jumps to 89%. About 40% of the grand thefts reported were cell phones. None of these news outlets examined the 137% increase or compared types of crimes committed in February 2022 and 2021. But according to  LASD’s own reports, violent crime hasn’t significantly increased in West Hollywood since 2021 — in some categories, it’s actually gone down.

West Hollywood’s City Council is meeting today, and per its agenda, LASD will give a public safety update and the council will consider the Civilytics data. Even as the written update highlights a 51% increase in Part One Crimes between July and December 2021, it also concedes “that West Hollywood’s crime numbers are primarily driven by grand theft, petty theft, and vehicle burglary.” 

The council has until June 2022 to finalize its contract with LASD; it remains to be seen whether the Public Safety Commission’s recommended reallocation of funds will be adopted. Until then, local outlets may continue to repeat LASD talking points about a general increase in crime. Although multiple local news outlets reported on the “137% increase in Part One Crimes,” only one included how many of the 249 reported from February 2022 had been solved by mid March: two.