April 15th, 2007

Firms' Donations to LAPD Spur Concerns

By Patrick McGreevy
Los Angeles Times

Gifts Create a Pay-To-Play Perception That the Rich Can Buy Better Service Than the Poor, Critics Say. Bratton Denies Any Impropriety.

Corporations and business groups donated more than $417,000 in cash and equipment in the last year to the Los Angeles Police Department to help pay for investigations and services that directly benefited them, records show.

The film industry helped fund a crackdown on pirated movies. Shopping malls paid for extra traffic control, security and a tracking system able to recover cars stolen from their parking lots.

And next week, the City Council will consider accepting $50,000 from Philip Morris USA to aid an investigation into the sale and counterfeiting of the company’s cigarettes.

Supporters of the practice say it helps a cash-strapped department fight crime. But some skeptics are concerned about the appearance of pay-to-play law enforcement in which the rich can afford to buy better protection than the poor.

“This runs counter to the notion that public safety is provided equally to all and not just those rich enough to afford it,” said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause. “Our police are not a private security force, and therefore police services should be funded by the public and not private interests that stand to benefit directly.”

Unlike law enforcement agencies in other big cities for example, New York some of the LAPD donations were solicited by various police officials outside the framework of the department’s independent police foundation.

Donors who want to give to the New York Police Department are told to go through the separate New York Police Foundation, which was established in 1971 after the Knapp Commission uncovered widespread corruption in the department.

“Our police department cannot accept donations,” said Gregg Roberts, executive vice president of the New York Police Foundation. “We were created to be a hedge against corruption. By having donations go through us, we take out any implication of impropriety.”

The majority of donations benefiting the LAPD $2.1 million last year went through the Los Angeles Police Foundation, where one top official said it might be good for appearance’s sake that all of them go through the group.

The donations that the LAPD solicits from crime victims or companies with narrow interests also are distinct from payments the department gets for extra services. For instance, the department routinely allows major firms, including the Los Angeles Dodgers, to pay uniformed officers to work security after their normal shifts.

In other cases, such as the Martin Luther King Jr. Parade, the City Council waives the cost of providing traffic control and policing because the event serves the general public.

The propriety of private donations going directly to the department hit the spotlight after Police Chief William J. Bratton wrote to Philip Morris USA recently to ask for a $50,000 donation to help pay the cost of an investigation into the sales and distribution of cigarettes that are counterfeits of the firm’s products.

The cigarette maker’s donation sparked concern that has delayed its approval by more than two weeks. A vote is scheduled by the City Council for Wednesday.

However, a check of LAPD records shows that Philip Morris is not the only company paying for extra policing.

Other examples include:

The Motion Picture Assn. of America donated a 10-camera security system worth $186,064 “to assist officers with investigations of counterfeit merchandise” and other crimes.

The Westfield Topanga shopping mall donated a $26,753 automatic license plate recognition system to help police find and recover stolen cars after a series of thefts, including Cadillac Escalades, at West Valley malls.

Westside Pavilion Security provided $12,600, ostensibly to benefit the LAPD’s Explorer Program. (City Council members objected when they discovered that the paperwork included invoices for specific security patrols provided by Explorers at the mall but the donation was approved anyway.) Two other malls also gave $10,000 or more.

A group of businesses called the Hollywood Entertainment District Owners Assn. donated $85,000 worth of surveillance systems to watch the sidewalks in front of their businesses. The cameras were installed and linked to the Hollywood Police Station.

Xandra Kayden, a senior fellow at the UCLA School of Public Affairs, said there is a thin line between the private sector helping the police to better the city and donations aimed at getting extra police services in neighborhoods that can afford to provide them.

Kayden said Bratton crossed the line when he sent a letter to the cigarette maker seeking $50,000 for an ongoing investigation into the “illicit manufacture, transport, distribution or sale of Philip Morris USA products.”

“Some people can afford it and some can’t, and then you get to the issue of who is included in the service and who is not,” Kayden said.

Paige C. Magness, a spokeswoman for Philip Morris, said her company was asked to donate to help an investigation that had already begun. “Naturally, we have an interest in protecting the value of our brands and the consumers who use them,” she said.

LAPD officials strongly defend their actions, saying such donations provide a public benefit beyond what is received by the donor.

“I have no concern,” Bratton said, noting that there is oversight because all donations are approved by the civilian Police Commission and City Council.

Asked if donors might expect to get extra police services by giving money, Bratton responded: “Not at all. Do they get better service from a politician who takes a donation from a company or individual?”

Although cars have been stolen from the Topanga mall parking lot, the license plate reading system donated by the center’s owner is used generally on a police vehicle patrolling streets of the West Valley, where it has helped recover dozens of cars not taken from the mall, according to Det. James Thornton of the auto theft detail.

The camera system in Hollywood that was paid for by local businesses but is operated by police has made the business climate more attractive to shoppers but also helps all who use the streets, officers say.

“The police department has already taken advantage of the five cameras installed in the spring of 2005 as part of a prior donation and has documented a resulting drop in crime along Hollywood Blvd.,” Council President Eric Garcetti wrote in a recent report.

In many cases, police provide documents to city officials indicating there is no quid pro quo. That was the case with the gift to the Explorers by the Westside Pavilion.

“The donation is intended to benefit the Los Angeles Police Explorer Program. No promises or commitments were made, sought or expected. No tax advantage, [or] preferential treatment is linked to this donation,” Police Capt. Carol Khoury wrote in a report on the contribution.

However, Councilman Dennis Zine objected that other documents did appear to provide a link, noting that the firm submitted invoices for security work along with its donation.

“Don’t say it’s a donation when you are actually paying for security,” said Zine, a former police sergeant. As a result of his objections, the council is ordering that all future donations include better documentation of what the money is for.

Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy at UCLA, said private donations to specific police enforcement efforts do raise questions, including whether the money results in redirecting officers to protect the corporation’s interest exclusively, perhaps taking officers from duties protecting average citizens from muggers.

But because many of the donations accepted by the LAPD do not appear to benefit the donor exclusively, Kleiman does not believe the LAPD is acting improperly.

The camera system provided by the motion picture group to help enforce anti-piracy laws in Santee Alley and other areas of the downtown Fashion District has resulted in numerous arrests of people selling pirated DVDs and videos, and is an ongoing deterrent to that activity.

But, it also has helped foil car thefts, street robberies and other crimes, according to Det. Rick Ishitani, who works in the LAPD’s anti-piracy unit.

Mike Robinson, a motion picture association vice president in charge of U.S. anti-piracy operations, said the film industry provided the security system without any guarantees that it would be used solely to benefit the industry.

He said the movie industry has a stake in helping to preserve the quality of life in Los Angeles that goes beyond simply catching those selling illegally copied films.

“It’s an appropriate thing for us to do,” Robinson said. “It’s a win-win. There was no condition that said they could only use this to catch movie pirates.”

But Feng and Kayden said private corporations that do not think the LAPD is doing enough to protect their special interests can always hire private security.

Magness, the Philip Morris spokeswoman, disputed those who say the company should use its own private security to enforce laws protecting its brand. “We don’t have the authority that a law enforcement agency has,” Magness said.

Paying to have extra police services in neighborhoods raises other issues, Feng said.

“The danger is that you might have the appearance that only the rich can afford to have the police adequately cover their neighborhood,” Feng said.

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