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From more cops to defund: Candidates for L.A. mayor differ on crime and policing

A phalanx of uniformed people walking outside an LAPD building
Policing and crime in Los Angeles have been major issues in the race for mayor. Candidates have expressed a range of opinions and ideas.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

One candidate wants to make the Los Angeles Police Department larger than it has ever been. Another envisions a future where America’s second-largest city no longer needs police. The others have staked out middle ground.

After the tumult of recent years, it should come as no surprise that the race to become Los Angeles’ next mayor has focused largely on issues surrounding crime, public safety and policing.

Mass protests after the 2020 murder of George Floyd ignited fierce, ongoing debate about the role LAPD should play in the city and turned renewed scrutiny on long-running concerns about officers’ sometimes heavy-handed tactics. The city, meanwhile, had one of its deadliest years in the past two decades and helped elect a controversial reformer to serve as the county’s top prosecutor.

But the candidates for mayor differ on the correct path forward, mirroring a nationwide struggle over how to balance the need to combat rising crime with calls to rethink a status quo in policing that has disproportionately affected communities of color.

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The Size Of The LAPD

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Although calls to “defund” police departments following Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis officer largely fizzled, candidates in Los Angeles have since been peppered with questions about how many cops are needed to patrol the city.

The LAPD employs 9,352 officers. Billionaire real estate developer Rick Caruso has promised to add 1,500 cops and eventually balloon the LAPD staffing level to 11,000 officers. The number of sworn officers in the city grew past 10,000 for the first time in 2013 under former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and Caruso’s plan would give the department more officers than it has ever had.

Promising to grow the department is one thing, but achieving those figures is another. Last week, the city’s chief legislative analyst said the department is unlikely to have more than 9,500 officers before June 2023 due to an administrative logjam and recruitment struggles. Asked how he would achieve his plan, Caruso said in an e-mail that he would reduce “the time it takes to vet candidates” and consider offering signing bonuses to new officers.

“The failure of one administration to hire more police does not mean it’s not possible,” he said.

U.S. Rep Karen Bass, meanwhile, has a plan to hire 250 civilian workers to handle administrative tasks currently carried out by sworn officers — a restructuring that she believes would bump up the number of officers available for patrol duties. In total, Bass believes the LAPD should have about 9,750 officers.

Bass (D-Los Angeles) has also called for the development of response teams comprised of social workers, homeless outreach specialists and mental health clinicians to respond to certain situations instead of officers.

City Councilman Kevin de León wants to fill LAPD positions that are currently vacant in order to bring the department’s staffing to the 9,706 officers approved under the city’s budget. He also believes LAPD reserve officers should be given a larger role as a way to bolster the department’s ranks and, similar to Bass, has called for the creation of civilian mental health teams to respond to people in crisis, instead of officers.

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Businessman Mel Wilson, a longshot candidate, has echoed Caruso’s call for 11,000 officers and said he will hire 350 trained mental health workers to assist officers.

Activist and community organizer Gina Viola is the only candidate who has vowed to reduce the size of the LAPD. She has said she will refuse to hire new officers and told KPCC-FM (89.3) that she would push for the creation of community academies that would teach everyday Angelenos how to respond to emergencies in their neighborhoods.

Combating Crime

Over the past two years, Los Angeles has seen a significant rise in violence. Homicides jumped by 53% from 2019 to 2021 and are on pace to increase again this year. The number of people shot in the city surged by nearly the same percentage over those two years. And although property crimes are down overall since 2019, the jarring visuals of smash-and-grab robberies have unnerved Angelenos.

The three leading candidates in the primary — Caruso, Bass and De León — have all made reducing gun crime a central plank of their platforms. Each has pledged to work to keep firearms out of the hands of domestic abusers and combat the rise of so-called ghost guns in the city.

Bass has said she will bolster the ranks of LAPD’s four homicide bureaus as the rate at which the department solves killings has slipped in recent years. Pressed for specifics, Bass wrote in an e-mail that she would “invest in specialized detectives.”

She also vowed to invest heavily in the LAPD’s Community Safety Partnership program as a way to counter the deep-seated distrust that leads many people in Black neighborhoods not to cooperate with detectives investigating killings. While studies suggest the initiative has been successful in reducing crime, some activists have dismissed it as a misuse of money that could be better served funding social programs.

De León and Caruso have said they will look to collaborate with other law enforcement agencies to tackle some of the city’s most pressing crime issues. The councilman wants to work alongside the state attorney general’s office to target what he sees as the “organized crime” aspect of smash-and-grab thefts. Caruso wants the LAPD’s gun enforcement efforts to dovetail with those of federal law enforcement.

Caruso has gone the furthest in painting Los Angeles’ public safety woes in near-dystopian terms. During a March debate, he said crime was at its worst in the city’s history and that most Angelenos were afraid to walk out the doors. Both claims are demonstrably false.

Many of the candidates talked about an uptick in crime during Tuesday’s debate.

He has also promised to “fix” Proposition 47, which reduced several felony crimes to misdemeanors, though it’s unclear how he would affect a piece of state legislation as mayor. He has also said he will make it “mandatory” for the Los Angeles city attorney’s office to prosecute misdemeanors, which it already does. Asked for specifics about his plans for the city attorney’s office, Caruso echoed a common complaint from police that “far too often the criminals they arrest are released without ever being charged.”

Public Safety Experience

Caruso served as president of the city’s civilian Police Commission from 2001 to 2005 — an important period in which the commission was involved in hiring a new police chief, William Bratton, who led a dramatic overhaul of the department.

Caruso has touted a 30% reduction in overall crime during his tenure as commission president, though he was absent for nearly 40% of the board’s meetings in that time. Policing experts have cast doubt on what effect the head of the board has on city crime rates, which dropped precipitously from the early 1990s to the early 2010s, before and after Caruso’s tenure.

“The Police Commission is the oversight and policymaking body of the LAPD,” Caruso said in response to questions about his decision to take credit for the crime decrease.

Bass founded Community Coalition, a group that advocates for racial justice in South L.A., in the 1990s and, while in Congress, worked on criminal justice legislation, including the historic George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in 2020. The bill — which would have made it easier to sue police for using unnecessary force on duty and created national training standards for law enforcement — passed the House of Representatives and failed on the U.S. Senate floor. Bass has promised to try to implement elements from the failed bill on a local level.

Viola, an organizer with White People 4 Black Lives, has also been a frequent presence at Police Commission meetings. She has been critical of the way the meetings are run, the commission’s treatment of activists and what she sees as its failure to pressure the LAPD on accountability measures, including the fact that the department almost never upholds racial profiling complaints filed by the public.

Positions On Law Enforcement Partners

The next mayor will have to work closely with the Los Angeles County district attorney and sheriff on public safety issues that affect the region — a thorny proposition given who leads each agency at the moment.

Dist. Atty. George Gascón is the target of a recall and has faced intense criticism over his policies aimed at reducing mass incarceration, which many have deemed as soft on crime. L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva, meanwhile, has become a lightning rod for controversy through his four years in office, facing allegations of corruption and accusations that he’s been slow to combat the existence of what many have described as gangs among his deputies.

L.A. County sheriff’s officials attempted to cover up an incident in which a deputy knelt on the head of an inmate, according to records reviewed by The Times.

At a debate last month, Bass was the only candidate to publicly state she opposed the reelection of Villanueva, who is also on the ballot in June. Viola has repeatedly spoken out against the embattled sheriff. Caruso and De León have declined to take a position.

Caruso initially supported Gascón — hosting a fundraiser for him that included an appearance by singer John Legend in 2020 — but switched his support to then-incumbent D.A. Jackie Lacey late in the race. Earlier this year, Caruso threw his support behind the effort to recall Gascón from office and donated $50,000 to the campaign.

De León has said he opposes the recall in principle, but offered criticism of Gascón’s all-or-nothing approach to criminal justice.

“Growing up in a neighborhood where we saw our fair share of crime and violence — I learned firsthand that we do not live in a world of absolutes, and the truth is some folks just shouldn’t be free to roam our communities,” he said in an e-mail to The Times.

Bass, who once shared a campaign manager with the embattled prosecutor, has sought to distance herself from Gascón ever since she was erroneously listed as a supporter of his anti-recall campaign in January.

She says she is opposed the concept of the recall, but noted in interviews that some of the district attorney’s policies need to be changed. She’s been especially critical of Gascón’s decision to allow a 26-year-old accused of sexually assaulting a child to be sentenced in juvenile court because the crime occurred when the defendant was 17. Bass also recently repeated her frustration with Gascón’s initial decision not to file hate crime enhancements, though he rescinded that policy nearly 18 months ago.

Times staff writer Kevin Rector contributed to this report.


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