L.A.’s police union spending big on city elections, seeking to boost City Hall influence
Two years ago, some of Los Angeles’ political leaders took a public stand against the clout wielded by the city’s police union, announcing they would reject any campaign donations that were offered by the group.
In the days after the killing of George Floyd, Councilman Mike Bonin — elected twice with the union’s support — said he would disavow any additional outside spending made by the union on his behalf. Councilman David Ryu, then seeking reelection, returned one of the union’s donations. Nithya Raman, who defeated Ryu, decried the union’s influence throughout her campaign.
Those pronouncements have not kept the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents more than 9,000 rank-and-file officers, from making another major push at City Hall. With the election less than a week away, the union is financially involved in five of the city’s 11 contests, committing more money than any other organization.
So far, the union has moved nearly $4 million into an independent campaign committee targeting the mayoral bid of Rep. Karen Bass. That committee is running TV ads criticizing Bass for accepting $95,000 in free USC tuition and highlighting her missed votes in Congress. The union has endorsed real estate developer Rick Caruso, a former police commissioner who has made public safety a centerpiece of his campaign.
The PPL is also the sponsor of a political action committee that has spent nearly $500,000 supporting municipal law attorney Traci Park, who is running to replace Bonin on the Westside. And it has produced $98,000 worth of mailers promoting Tim McOsker, a lawyer who represented the union at City Hall for several years.
McOsker is running to succeed Councilman Joe Buscaino, who is stepping down after two terms in the city’s harbor district.
The union expanded its focus in the campaign’s final weeks, producing campaign mailers that take on the opponents of Councilmen Mitch O’Farrell and Gil Cedillo, both running for a third and final term.
What makes the PPL’s activities especially noteworthy this year is that the union is not simply relying on its officers’ membership dues, but also six-figure contributions from other donors. The union’s committee to defeat Bass recently received $250,000 from Douglas Emmett Inc., which owns multistory towers on the Westside, in the San Fernando Valley and elsewhere.
Douglas Emmett Management, a subsidiary, donated $100,000 to the police union’s committee to elect Park in Bonin’s district, according to donation records. Kilroy Realty, a company with a portfolio of properties across Southern California, did the same.
League spokesman Tom Saggau attributed the union’s deep involvement in the election to a range of frustrations expressed by its members: a protracted homelessness crisis, rising crime, corruption charges filed against current and former councilmembers.
The union, he said, is also seeking to spread the word about two council candidates who have described themselves as police abolitionists — community activist Eunisses Hernandez, who is challenging Cedillo on the Eastside, and labor organizer Hugo Soto-Martinez, running against O’Farrell in a Hollywood district.
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“They’re on the record saying they do not want a police department. Those are their words, not mine, and they have a plan to do it,” Saggau said. “When they say they’re not going to hire any more cops, even to attrition, do the math.”
The LAPD union has seen its expensive campaigns fall short before. In 2013, the union put $1.5 million into mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel, only to see her lose to then-Councilman Eric Garcetti. In 2020, the group spent seven figures supporting then-Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, who was defeated by former San Francisco Police Chief George Gascón.
One political consultant said he thinks the union’s activities are not simply about electing candidates.
“They’re sending a message to the world that if you cross law enforcement, that there will be a price to pay,” said Eric Hacopian, who is not involved in any city races this year.
For the public, the stakes are fairly obvious. The next mayor will select the five people who serve on the LAPD’s civilian oversight panel, which sets policy and issues rulings on police misconduct. The mayor and council also negotiate police officers’ salaries and benefits, and decide each year how much money will be allocated to the LAPD.
Anna Bahr, a spokeswoman for Bass, took direct aim at the union, saying the group has “a long history of participating in the pay-to-play politics that have governed City Hall for years.”
Bahr said her boss reached out to police union leaders while working on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, a reform bill in Congress, in an attempt to obtain their “good-faith insights.”
“In return, they have spent $4 million lying about the congresswoman’s record when they should be investing in improving police-community relations and recruiting new officers,” she said. “It’s a waste of money, and it’s not good for Los Angeles.”
Bonin, who won twice with the union’s financial support but later became a vocal critic, advised his followers on social media to reject each of the candidates backed by the union, which he described as an enemy of reform and accountability.
“If you marched or protested after the murder of George Floyd, if you think racial bias in policing is a problem, if you think we need to invest in preventing crime instead of chasing it, you should oppose the [union’s] candidates and support the progressive challengers,” wrote Bonin, who steps down at the end of the year.
Over the past year, activists with Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles have staged weekly demonstrations outside the league’s headquarters, calling for an end to law enforcement unions on the grounds that they wield too much power. Akili, an organizer with the group, said this year’s election only reinforces that idea.
“The police get an enormous amount from the local budget already,” he said. “And then they have these powerful organizations lobbying for more.”
The back-and-forth between the union and its detractors comes at a turning point for LAPD. Gun violence surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, causing a 50% increase in homicides over two years. The number of killings by police officers has also spiked, prompting fresh demands for a new approach to public safety.
Activists have been calling on city leaders to hire more mental health specialists to respond to Angelenos who are in crisis. The union has gone on record saying it agrees with that approach — but argued that such a change should not result in cuts to police patrols or sworn staffing.
“It shouldn’t come at the expense of safety for everyone else,” Saggau said. “You can do both.”
More than a dozen candidates in various city races have signed a “no new cops” pledge, promising not to expand the force and vowing to reject police union money. At the same time, several candidates who secured the union’s support have welcomed it with open arms.
One day after announcing the union’s endorsement, Caruso held a roundtable with police officers, spending an hour listening to them vent. He attributed his support from those officers, at least in part, to his four-year stint on the city’s Board of Police Commissioners between 2001 and 2005.
“They believe that I’m the one that can reduce crime in the city,” he said last week.
Park, who is running in an eight-way race to replace Bonin, has sounded equally enthusiastic about the union’s backing, calling herself “the pro-public safety candidate” for the city’s 11th District, which takes in coastal neighborhoods.
In an interview, Park criticized Bonin for voting in 2020 to cut the number of LAPD officers, then pushing for additional reductions the following year.
The LAPD has lost about 6% of its sworn personnel since 2020, falling from just under 10,000 to just above 9,350. During the same period, homicides reached their highest number since 2006. Robberies are up more than 20% so far this year, according to department figures.
“Defunding in 2020 lost us almost 800 officers, and look at the corresponding uptick in crime in 2020 and 2021,” said Park, who resides in Venice. “When we lose public safety officers, our communities are less safe.”
Erin Darling, a civil rights lawyer who also lives in Venice, pushed back against that idea, pointing out that police spending at the LAPD increased over the course of the pandemic. Two weeks ago, the council voted for a 6.5% increase in the department’s operating budget, with Bonin casting the lone opposing vote.
“There’s a myth that LAPD has been defunded,” said Darling, who is backed by Bonin in the race. “The LAPD has not been defunded.”
In an interview, Darling said the LAPD should move officers out from behind desks and into patrols. He also called for a rapid response team of psychologists and clinicians to respond to nonviolent mental health calls, saying that would free up officers to fight crime.
Darling accused the union of stoking fear among voters, portraying L.A. as a city that’s “out of control, where more police funding will save us.” The LAPD’s involvement, he said, is an example of “special interests manipulating our elections.”
The PPL is also sending attack ads targeting two candidates at the other end of the city — Soto-Martinez in Hollywood, and Hernandez in a district that stretches from Highland Park to Pico-Union.
Hernandez, a self-described police abolitionist, has argued repeatedly that police should be replaced by mental health teams, drug treatment services and other programs. In a questionnaire submitted to the L.A. chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, she said law enforcement special interest groups — she declined to call them unions — should have “no political power.”
“Of course the LAPPL is throwing money against us,” she said in an email. “They are a reactionary group that opposes any progress and accountability.”
Cedillo, running for his third and final term, said he wants officers to be punished for wrongdoing. But he said outright abolition is “irresponsible.”
“Our street vendors are being assailed by local gangs, follow-home robberies are becoming more commonplace, and our community members are feeling unsafe,” he said in a statement.
In the city’s Echo Park-to-Hollywood district, Soto-Martinez said he believes the union is targeting him because it wants to protect “their old ways of doing things.”
Like Hernandez, Soto-Martinez identified himself to the DSA as an abolitionist on policing. Like Hernandez, he wants more mental health workers and addiction services. But in an interview, he said that being an abolitionist is not necessarily the same thing as wanting to abolish all police.
“What we’re saying to folks is, once we address the structural issues of economic and racial inequality, our city will no longer need a police department as currently constructed,” he said.
O’Farrell, who is seeking a third term, said he too is working to transform public safety, by adding mental health workers to the Hollywood section of his district.
In a statement, campaign spokesman Orrin Evans said the councilman would work to “keep our parks, sidewalks and neighborhoods safe, while holding the police accountable to the communities they serve.”
This article was updated to clarify that Erin Darling is a candidate for City Council.
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