The Los Angeles Police Department is ending its decades-long participation in a narcotics task force at Los Angeles International Airport as part of an effort to deploy more officers on regular patrols, officials said Wednesday.
The task force has been involved in some of the city’s biggest drug smuggling busts, including one that led to Monday’s conviction of a Pasadena man who used couriers to hide heroin and cocaine in luggage on flights. The task force is also credited with the 2017 arrest of two men who were charged with attempting to smuggle a half-million dollars worth of heroin in suitcases, and the arrests of three baggage handlers who pleaded guilty this year to smuggling cocaine through the airport.
But LAPD Chief Michel Moore, who was sworn into office in July, is undertaking an effort to get 200 more officers off special details and into supporting regular patrols. The effort is part of a plan put forward by two Los Angeles city councilmen who said last year the average response time to emergency calls and commitment to neighborhood patrols were lagging.
“We are making those hard choices, as we need to prioritize where we’re going to have the biggest impact, and that’s getting more officers on the street answering radio calls,” LAPD Public Information Director Josh Rubenstein told City News Service about why the department was pulling out of the task force.
The LAX Airport Narcotics Task Force is led by the Drug Enforcement Administration and also includes members of the FBI, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Los Angeles Airport Police. The LAPD’s involvement is set to end Jan. 1, Rubenstein said, although the task force will continue on without the LAPD.
Clay Searle, a retired LAPD detective who worked on the task force for about 20 years, including during its formation in 1975, blasted the move and said pulling out is nearsighted.
“I think it’s a decision based mostly on ignorance,” Searle told CNS. “If you really want to impact a (drug) organization in your city, like a national organization, you need to have people at all the transportation places — the trains, the ports, the airports.”
Searle, who retired in 1995, said the LAPD had up to 30 members working on the task force at its height in the 80s and 90s and included some also stationed at Ontario Airport, although Rubenstein said the unit now includes only five or six LAPD members.
“For a few years there we were probably seizing a ton of coke a year, tons of weed, cash,” Searle said. “It was definitely the most successful drug task force in the country. It was really productive.”
John Marcello retired from the DEA in 1998, and worked on the task force off and on from 1978 to 1994. He said aside from drug busts, the unit shared intelligence with other agencies, as it often ended up tracking mobsters, thieves and other criminals.
The work didn’t just involve busting smugglers at the airport, but sometimes led to much larger operations, including one in the late 1980s that resulted in the seizure of 200 kilos of cocaine, $2 million in cash and the arrests of 17 people.
“There were hundreds of cases where guys took the case well beyond the initial courier that got busted,” Marcello said.
Kyle Mori, a spokesman for the DEA’s Los Angeles office, said the agency had not been formally notified by the LAPD that it was pulling out of the task force, and therefore could not comment on how its departure would impact operations.
“The task force has been successful. But all the task forces always come down to dollars and cents — does it make sense for the PD to assign people to them — and we’re sensitive to that,” Mori said.
Pulling out of the task force could impact the LAPD’s finances, since Los Angeles World Airports was paying the salaries of the LAPD’s personnel. The average officer pay for the LAPD in 2017 was $105,463, according to the Office of the California State Controller.
Although the financial impact would appear minor for a department that has a $1.6 billion budget this fiscal year, the LAPD is often strapped for cash and struggles to meet some of its basic needs.
A recent report from the city’s Information Technology Agency found that the LAPD has about 3,000 computer work stations that are more than seven years old, and requires around $10 million to replace them along with a few other urgent technology needs. Several City Council members fretted at a recent meeting that the tech needs have been brushed aside for years due to a lack of resources and could likely be pushed off again next fiscal year.
But Rubenstein said the moves being made at LAX were not based on finances.
“Our goal is to reduce crime. There is not necessarily a money incentive,” he said. “Our focus is reducing crime.”
The issue of increasing the LAPD’s neighborhood patrols was raised in 2017 by City Councilman Mike Bonin, whose district includes LAX. According to Bonin’s office, in 1969, when the city had about a million fewer residents, there were 6,194 sworn officers and an average 337 officers on patrol during the day shift. By the end of 2016 there were 9,885 sworn LAPD officers, and an average of 311 were on patrol.
“The numbers paint a clear picture of where our priorities have been, and it unfortunately hasn’t been in having patrol officers in our neighborhoods,” Bonin said in 2017. “To have thousands more sworn officers in the LAPD, but fewer of them in our neighborhoods shows a problem that must be corrected.”
Bonin and Councilman Joe Buscaino introduced a motion calling on the LAPD to consider dismantling some specialized units and hiring more civilians in support positions. Bonin’s suggestions focused more on freeing up officers from desk duty, not active task forces. He said moving officers off special duty on the social media or trademark units “and uniformed officers doing special event permits — that’s the kind of thing that needs some scrutiny.”
According to the motion, some LAPD officers have contended the department’s Patrol Plan is not consistently followed and the 7/40 Mandate — which requires them to respond to all emergency calls within seven minutes and devote 40 percent of their time to proactive policing activities — is not being met.
Bonin clashed with Moore, who was an assistant chief at the time, during a Public Safety Meeting in 2017 focused on the motion. Moore insisted the statistics cited in the motion were misleading. He said while there were 311 officers on patrol on the day noted in December, the department also had 773 other officers on the street working on gang, traffic, mental health and homeless issues, and that many of those officers were available to respond to emergency calls involving violence.
Moore also said the department’s average response time to emergency calls was 6.1 minutes.
“That response was not what I was hoping for from the department,” Bonin said. “I found that to be defensive and deflective of some of the issues that we’ve raised.”
Bonin’s spokesman, David Graham-Caso, said the councilman had no comment on officers being pulled from the LAX task force. In a white paper on his patrol plan published in November, Bonin said 300 officers had been added to patrols as a result of the issues it raised, and he praised Moore for making a further commitment to add 200 more.
Rubenstein said all of the task force members are not necessarily being directly put out on patrol, since at least some of them are detectives. He also said they are not being demoted, but are being moved into roles that would directly support responding to radio and emergency calls in some capacity. He also said many units and divisions were making tough adjustments to meet the 200-patrol-officer goal.
“There are a lot of divisions that are getting hit hard because of getting those officers back, including mine, by the way. I lost officers too,” Rubenstein said. He noted that the LAPD still has a substation at LAX, along with a K-9 unit and a bomb squad.
“We still have a big footprint out there,” he said. “It’s just this particular detail, we had to see where we would make the biggest impact, and the biggest impact is putting more officers on the street.”
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