By Nick Diamantides
Long Beach’s new chief of police is becoming a familiar face around town. Sworn in about two months ago, Jim McDonnell has gone to several informal gatherings to introduce himself to the city’s residents. Last Monday, he was the featured speaker at the monthly meeting of the Wrigley Association. About 35 people attended the meeting at the community center of Veterans Park. The chief noted that, although he has lived in Long Beach since 1996, his duties as assistant chief of the LAPD had kept him too busy to really get to know much about this city. “I didn’t realize (until recently) what a great city we have,” he said. ‘We have so much to be thankful for here.”
McDonnell added that he is very impressed with what he has seen of LBPD operations in the past two months. “We have a great police department,” he said. “We have one that is very aggressive, very proactive and likes to work. That’s the reason we have been able to see crime reductions over the past eight years.”
The chief noted that, while crime has dropped significantly in the last eight years, Long Beach has not publicized that improvement enough, and there is still a perception that it is a dangerous city. “There is a lot of tremendous work going on here, but where we are lacking is in the way we present the city to the rest of the world,” he said, noting that every section of the city has something good to offer to residents and visitors alike.
McDonnell noted that, aside from the need to overcome negative perceptions, one of the city’s biggest challenges is its continually shrinking budget. “We are in tough financial shape in this city and in this region,” he said, adding that the economy is not expected to significantly improve for at least the next two years, and city revenues could begin to increase three years from now. The chief noted that a year ago the LBPD had 1,020 sworn officers on the streets but, due to budget cuts, currently has less than 960. “When you look at the economic times ahead, it’s not going to get better soon,” he said.
He added that the budget crunch makes it more important than ever for the police to work more closely with the community. “Nobody knows our communities better than the people who live in them,” he explained, stressing that even getting an anonymous tip can save the LBPD many hours of expensive surveillance and investigation and often leads to quick arrests of criminals.
McDonnell added that he also hopes to greatly increase the use of surveillance video cameras to apprehend criminals. “I want to see how we can use that more effectively in the city, particularly in the high-traffic areas such as downtown, Pine Avenue, 2nd Street, the Town Centre and other places that are major shopping areas,” he said, adding that he hopes to use movable cameras on a short-term basis in areas experiencing spikes in crime.
McDonnell acknowledged that surveillance cameras require a significant investment, but he insisted that the city would realize a cost savings in the long run as videotaped evidence almost always shortens the time it takes to arrest and convict a criminal. “It will help us take the worst of the worst off the streets,” he said.
McDonnell also stressed that simply arresting and convicting criminals is not enough. He explained that the city as a whole needs to work together to give young people wholesome alternatives to illegal activities. “We need to work with the school district and the colleges to provide after-school help,” he said. “There is no quicker fix than teaching somebody to read.”
According to McDonnell, studies have shown that 75 percent of kids who cannot read and write in the fourth grade will end up arrested or on welfare at some point in their lives. “If we can make the investment in our kids at an early age, we won’t have to deal with them in the criminal justice system down the road,” he said. “That’s something that changes lives, and I look forward to working with the partners that we have in this city to make this city a better one.”
He explained that schools, kids clubs, the parks department, faith-based organizations, and volunteer mentors must get involved in helping young people choose to become productive, law-abiding members of society.
The chief also noted that teaching state prison inmates to read and write greatly reduces the likelihood that they will return to prison after their release.
In closing, the chief told the audience that the LBPD wants to get input from residents to come up with innovative ways to further reduce crime in the city. “I look to be able to use the technology and the resources we have, but I also want to have a police force that is approachable and wants to work with you,” McDonnell said. “I want us to be able to step back and ask, ‘Can we take a different approach?’”