By LAAPOA President Marshall McClain
Following nationwide protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd, the Los Angeles City Council introduced a motion to cut $150 million from the LAPD budget — a decision so apparently spontaneous and unilateral that the association representing the department’s command officers had to hear about it on Twitter, without any opportunity to discuss or address the issue. On June 8, the Los Angeles Times editorial board opined that this should be only the beginning of a process to slash the city’s policing budget. This is a dangerous and ill-thought-out idea that will bring further damage to the communities it purports to help and places the entire city’s safety at risk.
The Times begins by noting that it “has consistently backed the expansion of the LAPD … based on years of watching an understaffed and overstressed department, steeped in an insular us-versus-them culture, engage in brutal and oppressive policing.” In addition to acknowledging that funding has been needed to change this dynamic and institute much-needed reforms, the board recognizes that “it would be a mistake to slash the LAPD budget so deeply that it becomes impossible to continue successful initiatives like the Community Safety Partnership, which has been a model for reducing crime and building community trust in police.” In other words, the programs the city has invested in over the past decades have been largely effective. On the national stage, Mayor Garcetti has repeatedly pointed to the LAPD as an example of successful progress in community engagement, de-escalation, mental health intervention, implicit bias training, internal accountability and transparency.
The Times states that “The LAPD budget has grown 58% over the last decade,” but omits the fact that the entire city budget increased by almost the same rate over the same period. It even goes on to acknowledge that during this time of proportionate police budget growth, “crime has fallen dramatically.” While the board interprets the low crime rates to mean spending on police has become less necessary, isn’t it even more likely that the city’s consistent investment in increasingly effective and innovative policing has had the desired effect of reducing crime? It would be foolish to pull the rug out from under these measures instead of looking for ways to build on that momentum.
As usual, the Times isn’t speaking from facts. In addition to ignoring most of the tremendous strides that have been made over the years, it claims that many police duties can be performed by civilians. But the city isn’t simply spending money on police directing traffic — it has the Department of Transportation (DOT) for that. Police aren’t simply checking fares on the Metro — the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has staff for that. Police working the streets and public transportation are there for public safety, to deter crime and respond to criminal activity throughout the transit system. Similarly, police aren’t simply responding to welfare checks on the homeless. Police officers work with clinicians and experts to assist someone who is having a mental health episode and ensure public safety throughout the process.
It is seriously flawed to state, “Although there’s nothing more important than public safety to a community’s well-being and prosperity…” and then go on to say that we need to make deeper cuts to the police budget and more reforms, without even addressing the cuts and reforms that have already occurred. The editorial says, “for too long the city’s leaders have treated the LAPD as the answer to all public safety problems,” when in reality the city has police officers doing nontraditional law enforcement jobs as a result of budget cuts, not increases. It doesn’t fund the hiring of jailers and then has police officers pulled from the field to do the work; it doesn’t hire enough dispatchers and other administrative staff and then has the police department handle it.
This isn’t a problem that is unique to the city of Los Angeles — it happens across the county, state and country: Police departments are used like Swiss Army knives because of budget cuts. So to now claim that defunding or dismantling the police will fix the police is a ridiculous and dangerous concept that will further hurt the very population it claims it will help. Unfortunately, it’s a pattern that is now sweeping the nation, from New York City to Minneapolis to Portland. Here in Los Angeles, the defunding calls have spread to include demands for the elimination of the Los Angeles School Police Department, the largest and most respected agency of its kind in the U.S. — a move that would place our children and their teachers at risk.
It is noble and long overdue to provide more funding in city, county and federal budgets for more social justice projects such as job programs, health, housing and economic development. But why must the idea of police reform and funding social justice be mutually exclusive?
It’s clear the pandemic has placed strain on government budgets that may necessitate temporary belt-tightening. But it has also placed unimaginable emotional and economic stress on our citizens, exacerbated by the recent civil unrest. In a climate of fear and desperation, crime and violence can take root. Even at the height of the stay-at-home orders, we saw a dramatic rise in theft and recidivism as opportunists sought to take advantage of the circumstances to prey on the public. Now is not the time to turn our backs on public safety and experiment with unproven methods. For change to be constructive and effective, law enforcement needs to be part of the solution.
Law enforcement leaders around the country, including LAAPOA, have rightfully condemned the incident that led to George Floyd’s death as inconsistent with the mission and goals of our profession. Many of us well understand the frustration and anger it incited, and the need for peaceful protests to express those emotions. We know why policymakers are rushing to propose sweeping changes to calm the outcry and prevent similar catastrophes in the future. But measures that are hasty, thoughtless or ill-informed risk doing more harm than good. Instead of throwing up our hands and abandoning the progress that has already been made toward police reform, we need an honest and considered conversation among everyone with a stake in the future of law enforcement. This is the time for discussion regarding the need for a national standard on police use of force, as well as minimum training and recruitment standards. It will take the practical expertise of law enforcement experts, not just the passionate opinions of advocates, to enact positive changes that will actually help and will stick.
We know change is needed and we have to do better. But we all need to do the work. Knee-jerk responses such as drastically slashing budgets and then magically expecting things to improve won’t help. Let’s truly protect public safety by coming together to find solutions.