Column: Go ahead, cut the police budget. But more important, remake the LAPD
If any members of the Los Angeles City Council were feeling timid about slashing the LAPD budget, they just caught a break from a tough-guy cop who moonlights as a thug in Hollywood dramas.
We’ve seen calls to defund numerous law enforcement agencies since the brutal killing of an unarmed George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop. The clamor has grown after incidents of overzealous policing during recent nationwide protests, in which nonviolent protesters were shot with rubber pellets, trampled by officers and tear-gassed.
In Los Angeles, police supporters argue that the LAPD has already instituted many of the reforms being called for nationally, and that budget cuts will threaten public safety.
But as my colleague James Rainey reports, the reforms may not have penetrated all that deeply into the department — or at least it doesn’t seem that way judging by the knuckle-dragger chosen to be the face of the rank and file as a board member and frequent spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Protective League.
Nationwide, protesters and activists have been calling to “defund the police.” But what does it actually mean? And why are so many people calling for it to happen?
On the same day the union ran newspaper ads expressing “disgust and sorrow for the murder of George Floyd,” PPL board member Jamie McBride sent a very different message in a Facebook post. McBride, a 30-year veteran, posted video of former LAPD Chief Daryl F. Gates, who led a brutal force that acted like an occupying army, creating an enduring rift between police and communities of color. McBride’s caption: “The CHIEF! Never sell out and back the troops!”
Another McBride social media post included body slams and other force used against Black and Latino suspects, set to music. McBride, who was involved in six shootings in his first 11 years on the force, has a daughter who is an LAPD cop. In April, she shot and killed a man who was allegedly brandishing a knife. An investigation is pending, and the family of the victim has filed federal lawsuits for wrongful death and excessive force.
Defund the police? If Jamie McBride is the guy cops want representing them when people of all colors and ages are calling for a new day, let’s swing the ax. But I know a lot of good police officers who do heroic work for all the right reasons, so I won’t be signing my name to any poster that says all cops are bastards.
I spoke to one cop who was demoralized and fatigued after dealing with the dangers of COVID-19, the blaming of cops for all social and economic ills and the calls for defunding. The officer complained about the taint of tough-guy culture and said it still defines the elite Metro Division, where the most recent scandal, earlier this year, involved the alleged classifying of people, falsely, as gang members.
“Everybody’s gotta be more badass than the guy next to him,” said the officer, and the victims of that mentality are usually poor people of color.
So yes, it’s only fair to take a hard look at the roughly $2 billion LAPD budget and what it pays for, even as the L.A. Unified School District police department and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department come under similar scrutiny. A proposal pushed by Black Lives Matter would practically eliminate LAPD funding and shovel that money into housing, mental health services and crime prevention among other things.
But a cut anywhere near that deep won’t happen, and if it did, there could be disastrous consequences. The council is more inclined, based on preliminary talks last week, to trim the budget by roughly $150 million.
Meanwhile, Mayor Eric Garcetti, who last year was busily handing out raises to LAPD officers despite projected budget deficits down the road and earlier this year intended to increase the department budget by 7%, has done an about-face. Now he’s scrambling to whack the budget. It’s the usual management by crisis and political whim at the City Hall pork mill, which ought to be sponsored by Farmer John.
During the marches in L.A., as reported by Dakota Smith, Mayor Strength and Love said he appreciated the restraint officers were showing, even as protesters were getting clubbed. And he insisted he would not call in the National Guard, then did. My dollar to your nickel that if police funding is chopped and crime ticks up, a smiling Garcetti will be grand marshal in the parade for restored funding.
But the dollar amount spent on the LAPD isn’t the most critical decision local officials have to make in the days and months to come. The far more important task is to figure out how to reimagine the role of the department.
“We ask the cops to do suppression, containment, search and destroy and mass incarceration. That’s the mission, and until that changes, you’re not going to get anything different” no matter how much budget cutting is done, said civil rights attorney Connie Rice.
She helped write some of the LAPD reforms of the last two decades, but says an old-school warrior culture is too baked into the DNA of a force that needs to think of itself more as a guardian and community partner.
“What I’m hearing,” said Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents the Westside, “is that people aren’t just outraged about a particular incident, but they’re waking up to systemic and structural racism and the issues of racial bias in policing. And they’re waking up to the question of what is the right way to police. People are less attached to a particular dollar figure … as they are to figuring out how to do this right.”
Bonin, who sits on the Metropolitan Transit Authority board that recently voted on a package of reforms for how it polices L.A.'s transit system, surveyed his Westside constituents on policing and got back a clear message about how to transform the LAPD. Bonin said a majority of the 2,672 respondents want the LAPD to respond to violent crimes and property crimes in progress but would prefer that officials other than police respond to other kinds of calls.
“If we were going to design a public safety system from scratch, very few people would say that the appropriate and necessary response to mental health crises, traffic collisions, or reports of loud parties should be armed agents with the authority to use deadly force,” Bonin wrote for the Argonaut after his survey. “But that’s exactly the system we have in Los Angeles, where residents call the same agency for off-leash dogs as they do for homicides.”
Bonin said he’s hoping that as the budget gets hammered out, there might be some common ground between disparate groups. Black Lives Matter and the police union might both agree, for instance, that homelessness is an issue that in most cases can benefit more from social workers, mental health staff and addiction specialists rather than police officers.
I’m hoping, perhaps naively, that there will be a day when the police officer code of silence is broken. A day when good cops call out the bad. A day when they decide they don’t want a guy who plays a thug to be the face, and loudmouth, of the department.
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