LA rethinks ‘defunding the police’ as violent crime surges

As protests against the murder of George Floyd swept across the US in 2020, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti shocked law enforcement officials with a pledge to cut $150mn from the city’s police budget.

Though it hardly fulfilled the demand of some protesters to “defund” the LAPD, which was left with an annual budget of $1.7bn, it was nonetheless a dramatic gesture.

Coming just a month after Floyd’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, Garcetti’s move was the direct result of a “massive uprising” of a broad swath of Angelenos, said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles.

“When he made that pledge, there were tens of thousands of us outside City Hall,” said Abdullah, also a professor of pan-African studies at California State University LA. “We were demanding that the police be defunded and that those resources go into things that actually make communities safe.”

Two years after Floyd’s murder, however, pledges to “defund the police” are less likely to drive the political agenda in this election season, even in progressive LA. Far from seeking to cut police funding, the frontrunners in the race to replace Garcetti in this year’s mayoral election are vowing to put more officers on the streets.

A rise in homicides and other crimes — coupled with a stark increase in homelessness — has left many Angelenos worried about their safety.

After years of decline, violent crime has begun to spike in LA. Last year there were 397 homicides in the city, the most since 2006, and the trend has continued this year. There were 122 homicides in LA between January and April 30, which police have attributed to gang activity and the wide availability of guns. Other violent crimes, including rape and aggravated assault, are also trending higher.

“After an immediate shift in public opinion toward police reform [after Floyd’s murder] the base has almost completely reversed itself,” said Dan Schnur, a politics professor at the University of Southern California.

“At the time, it appeared we were witnessing a seminal shift in public thinking on these issues. If anything, the more traditional approaches to public safety and criminal justice are more popular now than they were two years ago,” he added.

Karen Bass, the Democratic congresswoman who is a favourite in the field of mayoral hopefuls heading into the June 7 primary vote, has long been considered a leading light of California progressivism. But her pledge to put more cops on the streets has drawn criticism from progressive critics.

Bass, who served as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and was considered by President Joe Biden for vice-president, said she would shift some police from desk duty back to street patrols, and add about 200 new officers to raise the LAPD’s headcount to 9,700. To combat police abuses, she advocates accreditation, educational standards and better training.

She acknowledges the need for reform given the deep-seated tensions between the LAPD and minority residents, which exploded into view after the police beating of Rodney King in 1991.

“The reality is in some parts of LA they want police to protect them but they’re also afraid of the police,” she said at a forum on Tuesday. “The sad thing is that in South LA it’s more warrior-style policing, while in more affluent areas it’s more guardian-style policing. We need one style of policing for all areas.”

Her main rival, billionaire property developer Rick Caruso, has said he would add 1,500 police to the force, bringing it to about 11,000 officers. Caruso is a life-long Republican who switched to the Democratic party shortly before jumping into the race with a pledge to “end homelessness, crime and corruption”.

Caruso, who once served as LA police commissioner and has spent more than $20mn on his campaign, has been outspoken in his opposition to progressive police reforms. Polls have shown Caruso and Bass in a dead heat in the “top two” primary, which will allow the two candidates with the most votes to advance to the general election in November.

Abdullah described Bass’s pledge to put more police on the streets as “disappointing”.

“It seems that candidates who want to be progressive sometimes feel like in order to be viable they can’t be as progressive as they have been,” she said. “I think it’s a losing strategy for Karen Bass to try to out-Caruso Caruso.”

She noted that there are still advocates for defunding the police who are seeking office in LA this year. Among them is Gina Viola, a progressive activist who is running for mayor. Another is Albert Corado, who is campaigning for a seat on the LA city council on what he calls “a very abolitionist message of getting rid of the police”.

Corado, 33, had a political awakening after his sister, Mely, was killed in 2018 by an LAPD officer’s bullet while working in a grocery store.

“I came to this work and the movement in a state of shock and stage of grief,” he said. “I want to give money to communities. The biggest driver of crime is poverty. If you can address the root cause of crime then we don’t need that many cops any more.”

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