LA Sheriff says his department is being defunded - others disagree. Here's what data and experts say

The sheriff's department is one of many law enforcement agencies across the country seeing increases in funds.

ByCarlos Granda and Grace Manthey KABC logo
Friday, October 14, 2022
Is the LA County Sheriff being defunded? What data and experts say
Most of the more than 100 agencies analyzed by ABC7 saw increases of at least 2% in their budgets between fiscal year 2019 and fiscal year 2022. The LA County Sheriff's Department is no exception. But, experts say reallocating resources could actually help departments.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva is saying his department is being defunded.

He regularly holds press conferences and live Facebook events addressing the issue.

But Villanueva is not alone: police leaders, politicians and others have made similar claims.

Yet, his department's budget was nearly $260 million higher in fiscal year 2022 than it was in 2019, before protests erupted in Los Angeles and across the country.

On October 4, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a $3.86 billion budget for the department for fiscal year 2023, a $251 million increase.

"While the perception may be that that defunding is taking place, in fact, the sheriff's budget has increased," said Fifth District Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger.

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The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department is one of the 109 agency budgets Eyewitness News collected. Roughly 80% of these agencies saw increases of at least 2% in their budgets between fiscal year 2019 and fiscal year 2022.

The L.A. County sheriff saw a nearly 8% increase during that time, similar to that of the Plano Police Department in Texas and the Durham Police Department in North Carolina.

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Villanueva said it's still a "direct defunding" because the budget isn't keeping up with costs. Supervisor Barger said what he's dealing with is no different from other departments.

"This happens in probation, it happens in fire," she said. "They've got to cover that actual cost. That is something that he is asked to absorb. And so it does, in essence, make it look like it's being defunded, but in fact, his budget has increased."

"He plays as though he's being targeted. And he's not," Barger continued.

The budget process

The final 2022-2023 Los Angeles County budget this year is $44.6 billion, larger than the budgets of many states.

Every county department works with the County Executive Office and the Board of Supervisors to balance requests and determine where the money goes.

"Usually, you work with the departments to try to balance their requests, because you get a lot of requests. You know, we've only got so much money," said Supervisor Barger. "And so, it's really based on input by the department and then fully vetted through the CEO, and then brought to the Board of Supervisors."

Most of this work occurs between county employees. Lately, law enforcement funding and the term "defund the police" has been at the forefront of political discourse.

But what does defunding the police mean?

According to sociologist and senior fellow at Brookings, Dr. Rashawn Ray, it means "to reallocate taxpayer money from the police budget and the public safety budget to other parts of the government that need funding, oftentimes social services that have been underfunded for a very long period of time."

Ray has worked in the law enforcement space for roughly a decade. He said that overall, most local law enforcement agencies have not been defunded in any way.

"Part of the reason why the defund the police narrative has stayed around, is because police officers say it and elected officials say it," he said.

The Sheriff's budget

It is true that the county is giving the Sheriff a smaller percentage of the overall budget. In 2015, the Sheriff's Department got nearly 12% of the county budget. The most recent final fiscal year 2023 budget shows about 8.6%.

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The county has also allotted a smaller number of budgeted Sheriff's Department positions over the years. Though most years, large drops in budgeted positions are related to jails, not patrols.

For example, in 2018, the Sheriff's Department lost nearly 1,800 budgeted positions. But most of those positions were in the Medical Services Bureau Budget Unit, which provided "day-to-day line operations within Los Angeles County jail medical facilities." The county transferred those positions from the Sheriff's Department to the Department of Health Services.

In 2021, the largest drop in positions was in the Custody Unit, dealing with jails.

Even though the number of patrol positions in fiscal year 2023 has dropped by about 300 positions compared to 2012, the number of detective positions has increased by about the same amount.

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"The big picture is we're severely understaffed," Villanueva said.

He compared the number of personnel in his department to the national average. He said the national average is 2.5 cops per 1,000 people, but his department is working on less than one per 1,000 people.

The Sheriff said that number is based on only officers on patrol, not his total sworn staff.

But, national numbers from the most recent report from the U.S. Department of justice, are measuring sworn officers.

That national average is about 2.3 sworn officers per 1,000 residents for departments serving at least a million people, not just patrols.

The Sheriff's budget covers about 10,000 sworn staff for about three million people living in his jurisdictions. That is more than three sworn officers per 1,000 people, higher than the national average.

However, budgeted positions are not the same as filled positions.

The Sheriff said that county procedures are slowing the hiring process so much that he's experiencing what amounts to a "hiring freeze."

A County Executive Office document said the department has hired or promoted more than 2,500 new employees during the "freeze."

"They're creating paperwork for us, they're not helping us at all," Villanueva said.

He continued, saying the County Executive Office has "no business" telling the Sheriff's department when and who to hire.

Supervisor Barger clarified that a lot of the extra paperwork has to do with promotions.

"And that's where the hiring freeze comes in. The CEO has to sign off on those promotions. And so he's keeps talking about that being a hiring freeze. And it is in a way, because when you're promoting, you're leaving vacancy somewhere else, and we're not coordinating well. And that's part of the frustration, is that you gotta have a coordinated effort working together. And I know that is what's been missing. And I try to be that bridge," she said.

But, Barger said it can be challenging.

"The sheriff will be able to fill all budgeted positions. And that's important to quantify budgeted positions. We are, actually, in this budget, adding another two academies. So, the fact that he's talking about a hiring freeze being in place is not accurate. And it's misleading. And it drives me crazy, because I'm fighting hard to get him those resources," she said.

The impact on crime

Experts say the connection between law enforcement and crime is not always clear.

While studies have shown that more policing can reduce crime, others have shown it's not as straightforward.

Both national and local data show a weak relationship between the amount of money agencies get and crime.

Villanueva acknowledged this but said there is a relationship between personnel and crime.

"With the actual cops on the street and detectives working cases, there is a correlation. When you have less cops, you got more crooks, plain and simple," he said.

But an ABC7 analysis of yearly changes in budgeted patrol and detective positions compared to violent crime shows that may not be the case.

Despite having a 4.5% drop in the number of budgeted patrols and detectives in fiscal year 2018, violent crime did not increase. In fact, it dropped 4% in the calendar year.

Also, LASD crime data through August 2022 shows a 14% increase in violent crime, but no change in the number of budgeted patrols and detectives.

"While there is a correlation or relationship between police funding, between the number of police officers and crime, it's not a strong significant relationship, meaning, it doesn't matter when we take into account other factors," said Dr. Ray, from Brookings.

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University of Houston-Clear Lake criminologist and retired law enforcement officer, Dr. Kimberly Dodson said this mixed-results relationship is because police don't really prevent crime, they react to it.

"Crime happens, somebody calls the police and they come and take a report, then they try to solve the crime after the fact, right? So, saying that the police deter crime is not actually accurate. Because they're more of a reactive agency," Dodson said.

Quality, not quantity

"It's not more policing that you need. It's more community engagement that you need," Dodson explained.

Right now, she said, law enforcement is being asked to do too much: solve crimes, patrol neighborhoods, respond to mental health calls, and more.

"We ask the police to be all things to everybody. And that doesn't seem fair," she said.

Dr. Rashawn Ray, nearly 1,500 miles away in Maryland, echoed the statement.

Ray said some police officers are working 60 to 100 hours a week. He said they are "overworked" and "overstressed."

"Now imagine you're asked to go out and protect other people. It is a recipe for disaster," he continued.

Ray's research suggests that 80% of police officers suffer from chronic stress, including depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

"So when we hear law enforcement say we need more money, they need more resources. They are right," he said.

According to Villanueva, "you take the people away, that means less people have to do more work."

Ray said he's found that calls to law enforcement are overwhelmingly non-violent.

According to LASD's civilian contact data, about one in every three calls or stops end in either a warning or no action at all.

So, experts have theorized, if local officials reallocated resources for mental health or non-violent calls away from law enforcement agencies it could free up a department's resources and time to focus on solving serious crimes.

In California, more than half of all violent crimes go unsolved every year.

Similarly, Dodson said reallocating funds could also close poverty, education and mental health gaps that cause crime in the first place, helping law enforcement departments in the long run.

"Could the police department work with these other social services agencies to better address crime?" she asked.

"We've had many conversations and we always talked about as police officers, we go out for 10 minutes, and we fix something that's been wrong and put a Band-Aid on it, something that's been wrong for 10 years. And it's just an impossible task," Dodson said.

So, what does Sheriff Villanueva think of this?

"Fantastic idea, if they're not cannibalizing the department to achieve that goal," he said.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger said one example of this is the LA Metro Ambassador Program. Though, she was clear that they will not take the place of law enforcement.

"I've long maintained that law enforcement should not have to check to see if people paid to get on the on the Metro system. That's not their job. Their job is to keep the system safe, keep individuals safe. So, we can reallocate and have ambassadors do what the Sheriff's being required to do now and allow them to actually do the policing. I'm all for that."

Dr. Ray from Brookings said agencies may have to ask themselves, "where are we potentially mismanaging some funds? And where can we get some funds in other areas that can actually do the work we need?"

Managing funds

Ray said the "defund" discussion has turned into talks of how local governments can best manage funds. But that was not the original intent.

"What it started off with was about police brutality and the fact that taxpayers were paying for their own brutality," he said.

The LA County Sheriff's Department is no stranger to litigation costs from use of force cases and more.

According to County Counsel annual reports, between 2014 and 2021, the county paid nearly $500 million in settlements and lawsuits tied to the Sheriff's Department. That's nearly half of all litigation costs for the county.

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Villanueva said those costs have come down since his time as Sheriff. County Counsel data shows litigation costs from the Sheriff's Department make up a fairly consistent percentage of total county litigation costs up to 2021.

Budgets and figuring out how to manage funds is a complicated process and Barger said it's important to work together.

But that isn't always how the Sheriff deals with funding issues.

Back in 2020, for example, he held a press conference announcing the closing of two stations due to budget cuts, among other things. He never closed the stations.

Barger said the way he handled the situation was misleading.

"Never coming to us to even find out whether or not we would work with him, it was frustrating. And it puts people in a position where they become very cynical of government because is it really about need? Or is about being petty and trying to be punitive based on a different agenda." Barger said. "And I would argue that, you know, being that way is really holding our constituents hostage. And I don't play that game. And I've told the Sheriff time and time again, that I put the department first."

Barger continued, saying, "I think we all have to put aside our disagreements and our dislikes, and be more open minded about what the needs are and where I can help, I will."

Lisa Bartley, John Kelly, Frank Esposito and Amanda Hernandez also contributed to this story.