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Charting the Public Cost of Celebrities

The media's obsession with Britney Spears is lining the pockets of celebrity magazine publishers, celebrity TV shows, photographers and others, but it's costing Los Angeles taxpayers. 

The latest incident, which took place early Thursday morning, cost the city an estimated $25,000, according to Los Angeles Police Department officials quoted by the Los Angeles Times' Andrew Blankstein.

While that may be chump change for Britney, who reportedly banks more than $700,000 each month, it raises questions about limiting the photographic frenzy surrounding the troubled pop tart.

The LAPD said in a statement Thursday that it used “a number of resources” in escorting the ambulance transporting Spears to UCLA Medical Center because of “previous, overly aggressive actions of some members of the media, and in particular members of the paparazzi,” according to CBS News.

The Los Angeles Times reported that, “The motorcade that whisked Spears to the hospital also showed a large investment in resources. The line of emergency vehicles stretched longer than a football field.”

Spears was accompanied by at least two dozen officers, two cruisers, several unmarked cars and two helicopters during the trip down Coldwater Canyon Boulevard, the Times said.

The LAPD press office's Lt. Ruben Delatorre told the Culture and Media Institute that he could not release details about tactical operations. But he added, LAPD had had “lots of calls and e-mails about this” and that “there's a great concern for [the cost].” However, he said, “We will use whatever resources we determine are necessary to maintain public safety.” He noted that another incident across town that evening involving an armed, mentally disturbed man necessitated nearly the same commitment of police resources. 

For people who like to do math, here are some numbers that might add perspective to Thursday's Britney extraction:

$3.14:  Cost for a gallon of regular gasoline as of Jan. 28 in California.

24: Estimated number of officers on the scene.

12: Number of motorcycles.

2:   Number of police cruisers.

4:   Number of unmarked cars.

2:   Number of helicopters.

1:   Number of ambulances.

7:   Miles from Britney's house to UCLA Medical Center.

9 to 13: Miles per gallon for police cruisers.

40 to 50: Miles per gallon for Harley 1200 motorcycles.

$500 to $1,000: Typical cost of an ambulance ride.

$192: Estimated cost of operating a small helicopter per hour, according to Helis.com.

The big ticket is the salary costs of the multitude of police officers who might have been deployed elsewhere in the city on arguably more pressing business or who were called in for overtime work.

LAPD salaries range widely, depending on experience and rank. According to a chart on the LAPD Web site from June 2006, a patrolman makes from $51,114 to $76,546. Sergeants from $80,764 to $95,025; Lieutenants from $95,025 to $111,750; Captains from $111,708 to $146,557; Commanders $138,768 to $163,302. Deputy Chiefs $151,129 to $220,493.

Given that police officers put their lives on the line, no one is quibbling about their pay. But you can get an idea of how a celebrity incident like Thursday's can add up to $25,000 pretty quickly.

Celebrity meltdowns cost taxpayers in other ways as well.  The L.A. County Sheriff's Department billed the county courts for $2,286 for extra security for a court appearance by Spears and ex-husband Kevin Federline on Oct. 26, 2007, according to the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, the celebrity industry feeding off Britney's celebrity is generating an estimated $120 million annually, according to Portfolio magazine, as documented in the CMI article America's Tabloid Coliseum, by CMI Research Assistant Colleen Raezler. Circulation of the celebrity magazines is booming, with Britney almost continually featured on covers since her domestic problems began surfacing in November 2006.

“An editor's dream is to have a real life soap opera unraveling in front of you, and Britney provides that every week,” Sarah Ivens, OK!'s U.S. editor, told AP.  It was OK! that broke the story about the pregnancy of Jamie Lynne Spears, Britney's 16-year-old sister and star of Nickelodeon's Zoey 101.

Us Weekly, according to AP, had Britney on “nearly two-thirds of its covers last year, including each of the last 14. People has had Spears on the cover 10 times in the past 15 months.”

But the U.S. version of OK! has outdone them all, with Spears on the cover 54 times in the 103 issues since January 2006.

As the AP reported, “At a time when advertising in traditional media is declining, celebrity gossip titles such as Star, Us Weekly, and In Touch Weekly are growing. That helped overall newsstand sales for magazines edge 1 percent higher, to $2.39 billion, in the first half of 2007.”

To the local Los Angeles economy, which houses and feeds all those news crews, photographers, helicopter crews and hangers-on, Britney's mere presence means millions.

When you look at it that way, $25,000 for a security detail may be a fairly cheap cost of doing business.

Robert Knight is director of the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.