Eyewitness News investigates costs of replacing decals on LA County sheriff's patrol cars

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has temporarily halted a campaign to replace decals on its patrol cars after Eyewitness News began asking questions about the cost.

For weeks, the department refused to answer basic questions about the total cost of the decal project and initially provided a misleading statement that put the material cost at $3.58 per vehicle.

The true cost includes labor. The grand total so far is $261,000 for the 1,180 patrol cars completed. That's about $221 per vehicle.

"The sheriff's department is fully funded by taxpayer dollars, so everything they spend is taxpayer dollars," said Lt. Brian Moriguchi of the Professional Peace Officers Association, which represents higher-level department officials. "And I do think the taxpayers do have a right and the employees have a right to know what the sheriff is spending his money on."

The changes? A sheriff's department star on the side of patrol vehicles will now be 1 inch larger and removes a tiny copyright symbol.

A second decal of the department's motto, "A Tradition Of Service" is now "Tradition of Service," changing the uppercase O in "Of" to lowercase.

"It was brought to our attention that the 'Tradition Of Service' had a grammatical error in it," Lt. Bob Killeen told Eyewitness News.

The sheriff's department has a $3.3 billion annual budget, so the cost of new decals may seem like a drop in the bucket. But critics said that drop is too big for a department that starts each fiscal year $250 million in the red.

The department admitted it can't fill 300 empty deputy positions and 1,000 professional staff positions due to the chronic budget shortfalls.

"So, any money that's being spent to change the case of 'O' in 'Of' seems pretty ridiculous," Moriguchi said.

How many decals will be swapped out? At what cost? And why? Eyewitness News has been asking questions for nearly two months after hearing rumblings about the expense from the department's rank and file.

After the department initially provided the statement that only included the $3.58 material cost for one of the decals and no labor costs, Eyewitness News was told the department would not answer more detailed questions.

Eyewitness News went unannounced to fleet services where a mechanic was in the process of swapping out the decals.

"I take an hour for each door," the mechanic told an Eyewitness News producer. "The 'Tradition of Service' here and the star."

Documents obtained by Eyewitness News show that Penske, the contractor that performs vehicle maintenance for LASD, is raising its hourly labor rate from $48.31 per hour to $50.73 per hour.

The LASD emphasizes the need to standardize the appearance of its massive patrol fleet - 6,800 vehicles in all - which includes patrol cars for contract cities. Some of the contract city patrol cars had their own city logos alongside the LASD logos, which the department said "can be confusing for citizens."

"The public has to be assured that when they see a sheriff's car that it is a legitimate sheriff's car," Lt. Killeen told Eyewitness News.

The LASD invited Eyewitness News to tour its fleet services facility in an effort to rectify its previous lack of transparency. Fleet services has a budget of $15 million to $17 million a year to maintain thousands of vehicles from "cradle to grave."

"Overall, it's a large and complex operation keeping the 6,800 vehicles in service. Keeping enough vehicles to deploy every day," Killeen said. "We deploy about 500 black and white sedans at any one time countywide."

Initially, the LASD targeted about 2,140 patrol vehicles for decal replacement as they were cycled in for other maintenance. In the last 15 months, over half were completed at a total cost of $261,000.

According to numbers provided by the LASD, another 960 "black and whites" were targeted for decal replacement, but have not been completed at this point.

Eyewitness News did the math -- and according to the average cost provided by the LASD -- the total cost could reach $473,000.

But those figures only include the front-line "black and white" patrol vehicles. Eyewitness News asked about any projected cost for swapping out the decals on many of those other 6,800 LASD assets, including helicopters, boats, inmate transport vans, bomb squad and community volunteer vehicles.

"We estimate there are about 2,000 other vehicles of ours that have the sheriff decals and tradition of service on them," Killeen said. "Those are going to be handled through attrition or through same criteria -- whether they're faded, peeling or just otherwise need repair because they're damaged."

"It goes back to whether this is the proper way to spend the money," Moriguchi said, who points out the need to replace malfunctioning Tasers and deputy requests for better bullet-proof vests.

The department told Eyewitness News the "material costs" are minimal because jail inmates produce the decals at the custody division sign shop.

Questions raised by Eyewitness News led to a top-level meeting last week, which included Sheriff Jim McDonnell. Now, the campaign is at least temporarily halted as the department completes a thorough review of the costs.

"You have to look at it from the taxpayers' side, too," Killeen said. "Do we want to spend all the money to change from a big 'O' to a little 'o' when nobody is going to notice?"

The LASD may still be flinching from a jab on late night TV about another issue of uniformity - changing the color of deputies' metal hardware on uniforms, including belt buckles, from chrome to brass.

The total anticipated cost is $300,000.

Images show a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy uniform with silver and brass belt buckles.

ABC's Jimmy Kimmel mocked the LASD's claim that the change in color would contribute to deputy and public safety.

"Officers must find new ways to show their communities that they have their best interests at heart. That's why the L.A. Sheriff's Department is making some important changes -- we bought new belts," said the mock public service announcement.

"This is not a joke... that's the new one. I don't know about you, I feel safer already, I really do," Jimmy Kimmel told his late-night audience.

But to the Professional Peace Officers Association -- it's no joke. Instead of decals, they say they need more deputies,

"So, when you look at the money being spent on 'Tradition of Service' stickers, you really kind of wonder if he has his priorities in order," says Lt. Moriguchi.

Got a tip? Email ABC7 investigative producer Lisa.Bartley@abc.com.
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