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Enough Audits. Contract Cities Are Paying More for Less LASD Service

A single deputy now costs taxpayers $358,000 annually. There are 60 in the 2-square miles of West Hollywood.

Photo of West Hollywood Sheriff's Station Front sign on San Vicente
(Image: Alex Malek | Knock LA)

Nika Soon-Shiong is the Public Safety Commissioner for West Hollywood.

The largest sheriff’s department in the world is price gouging 42 cities. The LA County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) receives $315 million in annual revenue from contracts with municipalities including Compton, Pico Rivera, and West Hollywood. The department receives a $3.6 billion allocation to patrol unincorporated areas, jails, courts, and school campuses in the county. Over the past decade, the cost of an LASD officer has quietly increased by 100%. 

A single deputy now costs West Hollywood taxpayers $358,000 per year. When confronted about this, the sheriff makes two arguments: 1) Crime is skyrocketing, and 2) Cities’ law enforcement expenditure is not. Both statements are false.

Let’s Look at How the LASD Reports Crime Trends in WeHo 

A few days after the Public Safety Commission passed a successful motion to reallocate $3.2 million of the $20.4 million LASD contract toward social services, news outlets including KTLA, FOX, and  Los Angeles magazine reported a 137% increase of crime in the area. This would mean that WeHo, a city of two square miles currently overseen by 60 sworn officers, has become the most dangerous place in all of LA County. The claim was corroborated by a “security expert” — who was in fact a former WeHo LASD volunteer and Beverly Hills arms dealer. 

The WeHo Mayor posted a video doubling down on this narrative as a reason to spend more on the LASD contract, sparking backlash from a former Compton mayor, civil rights attorneys, and public defenders,  as well as organizations such as La Defensa, People’s City Council, Check the Sheriff, Film the Police LA, and the JusticeLA and Reimagine LA coalitions. 

The LASD showed up in force to the next West Hollywood City Council meeting. Over a six-hour spectacle, the 137% increase suddenly became a 51% increase in crime. The supposed 137% increase was from a comparison between data collected by the sheriff’s office in March 2021 and March 2022, as if nothing had happened in between. The sheriff presented a comparison of certain months of 2020 in a way which also slanted crime trends. A closer look at the report clarifies that the significant 51% increase is: “somewhat skewed … due to pandemic related business and club closures.” 

After all, the supposed spike was revealed to be theft of phones in night clubs, which is now counted as grand theft due to the price of smartphones. Waving props of recovered, stolen phones, officers proclaimed to be addressing this “crisis” via efforts “related to gaining information on whether people are intoxicated at clubs and where phones are.” A much quieter admission was buried: officers patrolling dimly lit night clubs had only solved two out of 249 cases last year.  

Without cherry picking numbers or months, we can see the actual incidence of Part I Crimes — which include homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, theft, and arson — has not reached pre-pandemic levels, and is still significantly lower than 10 years ago. 

a graph showing a decrease in all part 1 crimes from 2021-2021 in west hollywood

If Crime is Lower Than It Has Been Historically, Shouldn’t the Costs of Law Enforcement Be Going Down? 

Exactly the opposite is happening. And the rising costs are stunning. The LASD charges cities by the number of deputies on patrol. The cost per deputy rose by over 100% in the last decade. This means that 42 contract cities are spending more on their LASD contracts for fewer sworn officers. 

a graph showing the number of deputies in west hollywood decreasing and the amount of money spent on deputies increasing from 2012 to 2022

West Hollywood will pay $358,870.40 per deputy this year. That number includes $125,219 in salary, $102,220 in benefits, $70,000 for overhead, and $35,246 in liabilities. This is outrageous, particularly considering that it’s over three times the average salary for an LA County Department of Mental Health employee or social worker. 

The sheriff’s public statements about deputy costs have consistently shifted. When I first pointed out the fact that the contract for 67 deputies cost $12.4 million ten years ago and today 60 deputies would cost $20.4 million, Sheriff Villanueva penned a 15-page letter to the city council. He wrote:  

an excerpt from the sheriff's letter that reads "The cost for providing service did not double, it actually was less than the stated CPI of 22 percent. The law enforcement (575) cost for the City only increased by 18.3 percent over the past decade.

Then, in a presentation to the April city council meeting, the 18.3% figure suddenly became an “average annual increase” of 3.16%.

a table showing a 3.16% average annual increase of the cost of LASD deputies

Then, the Sheriff’s Department just lied. The head of the Contract Law Enforcement Bureau — responsible for managing contract law enforcement programs totaling more than $850 million — told the council that the cost per deputy includes the 11% cities pay for liabilities. It doesn’t. 

Liability costs have gone up five times in recent years. The contract cities’ insurance broker stated (1:19) that the LASD is “getting to the point where it’s becoming uninsurable.” This can happen as early as next July.  If it does, cities will be forced to settle claims and suits against the LASD, estimated at well over $20 million per case. In the meantime, contract cities are expected to front a risk that even private insurance companies are hesitant to assume.

There’s a Reason Why Crime is Not a Performance Indicator of Law Enforcement Contracts

The LASD fears what will happen when we see the bigger story of their complete data. There is no correlation between crime reduction and law enforcement spending. In the words of the LA County CEO Fesia Davenport, “The Department has yet to produce a concrete, data-driven spending plan for public safety … This requires focus and vision rather than sound bites and social media posts.” 

a chart showing a decrease in crime rates and an increase in LASD contract costs from 2012 to 2020

Contract cities are paying more for less LASD service to the detriment of communities’ perception of public safety. It comes as no surprise that the LASD is trying to convince public officials that spending over one fourth of the city’s budget to pay for 60 officers to patrol two square miles and solve an average of two cases of stolen phones is not only reasonable, but urgent. 

The recent scandal in WeHo mirrors LASD’s larger public relations push. As of 2020, the LASD has 42 people in its PR department, where a strategic communications director makes an annual $200,000. Officers are blaming “defunding” for their inability to provide service — in spite of the fact that they hired or promoted 1,900 employees during the county’s “hiring freeze.” Sheriff Alex Villanueva recently called the 2022-23 proposed $3.6 billion allocation to the department a “woke budget.” 

There is no time to wait for an additional fiscal audit, as cities will finalize their service agreements in June. In the most recent 2022-23 budget fact sheet, the LA County CEO expressed an exasperated clarification that all cities should keep in mind as they renew contracts with the LASD: “The Sheriff has not been prevented from hiring more deputies to serve Contract Cities … The Sheriff continues to provide just one side of the story.” 

Most public officials and residents support fiscally responsible investments of taxpayer money. Since the $3.2 million contract reallocation in WeHo will not affect LASD’s hiring, and the department has yet to produce a logical justification against it, we have to ask… is this a sound investment in public safety? Are contract cities willing to pay at least $329,713 for each officer, and then 11% on top of the contract in liabilities? Or, are there many other evidence-based and affordable strategies for making us safer? 

When the complete picture of crime data and LASD costs is laid out, it’s difficult to see how contract cities benefit from the LASD’s monopoly over public safety narratives and budgets. In fact, it’s as difficult to see as a stolen phone in a crowded, dark nightclub.