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Opening of new LAPD jail threatened by staffing shortages

September 29, 2009 |  2:28 pm

The Los Angeles Police Department's soon-to-be-completed jail is likely to be unusable because of staffing shortages, LAPD officials said today.

In a presentation to the Los Angeles Police Commission, Commander Jeffrey Greer told members of the civilian oversight panel that the department needs 164 detention officers to operate the $74-million Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles.

Only 83 detention officers are required to staff the old, smaller jail currently in use, Greer said, meaning the department needs to nearly double the size of the downtown jail staff. In addition, 19 detention officer positions at the downtown facility and satellite jails at some police stations are currently vacant, bringing the total number of new hires needed to 100.

Even in flush times, such an increase would have been a challenge, but with the city in the grips of a roughly $500-million budget shortfall, it is all but impossible. The LAPD has been ordered to cut $160 million from its budget and, for months, every city department has been under a civilian hiring freeze.

Detention officers, also called jailers, fall under this freeze since they are not sworn officers, but specially trained civilians. To hire more jailers, the LAPD first would have to receive a special exemption from the city-wide freeze.

"We're in a tough situation right now," Greer acknowledged to the commission.

The jail is meant to hold people arrested as they await arraignment, typically for no more than four days.

On any given shift, 62 detention officers would be needed in the new jail, double the number needed at the current site, Greer said. The new jail does not have twice the capacity, but the increased staffing is needed because the size of the jail is much larger and the facility is broken into several separate pod areas.

Originally projected to be completed in March 2008, the new jail has been beset by months of construction delays. City construction officials handed the keys of the jail over to the LAPD early this summer so the department could make small changes and train its jailers to run it, Rhonda Sims-Lewis, head of the LAPD's Administration and Technical Services Bureau, said in an interview. It is expected to be ready for use by Feb. 1.

Opening only part of the jail would not be feasible because of security concerns and because there would be too few cells available to house the constantly fluctuating number of suspects, Greer said in response to a question from a commissioner.

Commission President John Mack directed Greer to more fully explore the idea of raising funds for the jail by leasing out space to federal agencies in need of cell space.

Mack and LAPD Chief William J. Bratton expressed concern over the situation, but reiterated early promises that the department would not resort to using police officers to fill the empty positions. Bratton called on elected city officials to clear the way for hiring more jailers.

"It is going to require the city to take a much more focused look at these personnel needs," he said.

--Joel Rubin at LAPD headquarters

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