Column: A police abolitionist City Council member and the LAPD union’s tense tango
Hugo Soto-Martinez was in the middle of a Los Angeles City Council meeting last Friday when a friend texted a link to an Instagram post.
A photo of a police call log featured the address of Soto-Martinez’s Echo Park field office, a 9:56 p.m. time stamp and a request: “Extra patrol thoroughout night for parked white Lexus belonging to councilmember.”
The newly elected District 13 council member laughed off the post, by failed L.A. council candidate Susan Collins. He drives a Prius, for one. He wasn’t at his field office that night. And he knew better than to make such a request — not just because it reeks of political privilege but because he has a target on his back as wide as his smile.
For the record:
9:18 a.m. Feb. 11, 2023A previous version of this column said the LAPD budget is $11.8 billion. The LAPD budget is $1.9 billion; $11.8 billion is the city budget.
See, the novice politician identifies as a police abolitionist. While some take the term to mean a wholesale eradication of all law enforcement, Soto-Martinez’s stance is that the City Council should reallocate large chunks of the LAPD’s $1.9 billion budget toward preventive measures instead of officers.
Critics, though, paint him as a cop hater. The Los Angeles Police Protective League — the union that represents the LAPD rank and file — spent around $32,000 in campaign mailers during last year’s primary blasting Soto-Martinez as a danger to L.A.’s safety.
After Friday’s council meeting, Soto-Martinez went back to his office. That’s where his chief of staff, Patricia Castellanos, met him with a worried look. “We need to talk to you,” she told him. “En serio.”
The police log was real. A staffer for Soto-Martinez named David Mai had called the LAPD to watch over his broken-down Lexus, without letting Soto-Martinez know. Conservative media were now ridiculing Soto-Martinez as a hypocrite.
“I take responsibility for this,” Soto-Martinez told me Thursday as we sat in the living room of his rent-controlled East Hollywood apartment. A large photo of Malcolm X hung on a wall near the kitchen. Commemorative soccer balls from his favorite leagues, teams and tournaments sat on top of a bookcase. Detroit, his terrier mix, scampered around.
“I was a union organizer for 16 years,” he continued. “Our members make mistakes. And so I believe that when people make a mistake — as this [call] was a mistake for many reasons — that [Mai] should be accountable for that,” declining to discuss what disciplinary actions his staffer faced.
The LAPD has launched an internal investigation into who leaked the photo of the police log, which came from the city’s computer assisted dispatching system. Dispatches are usually confidential because of the detailed personal information they can contain.
As someone who thinks law enforcement budgets are too bloated but recognizes we need police and has family members in law enforcement, I immediately saw Lexusgate as a teachable moment for both Soto-Martinez and the police union.
Two antagonists, the spotlight now on their tense tango — there was no better time for each side to reflect that maybe the other had a point and possibly arrange a meeting to clear the air.
Initially, only one side bothered to take any lessons.
The Police Protective League’s Instagram account posted a video of Mai driving away from a Fox 11 reporter while the circus-like theme music for “Curb Your Enthusiasm” played. League officials offered scathing critiques to news outlets. On Fox News, PPL Vice President Jerretta Sandoz maintained that the Lexus belonged to Soto-Martinez, despite the council member’s denial. She said of Mai: “It’s hard to believe that the staffer didn’t get direction from the councilman” to ask for the patrol.
“This is why some people,” Sandoz added, “don’t trust politicians.”
Sandoz didn’t return a call for comment. A spokesperson for the Police Protective League, Tom Saggau, said, “It was pretty natural what our reaction was going to be. ... If [Mai’s] reaction is to pick up the phone and call the police, it flies in the face of what [Soto-Martinez] says about unarmed responses and not send police anymore.”
When I told Saggau that maybe ridiculing critics isn’t the best way to change their minds, he offered one more jab.
“I don’t think we’d change his mind, but would there be opportunities to ameliorate his ideas about police officers? Sure. Because clearly someone on his staff thinks we’re good for something, even though it’s just to protect his car.”
“I don’t take things personally,” Soto-Martinez said when I asked whether the Protective League’s attacks bothered him. “It was more like, ‘This is kind of unnecessary, you know?’ But, it’s like, ‘OK, I get how you feel about me.’”
The council member was never angry or bitter during our chat. He was most upset about what his staffer did, which he repeatedly said was a “terrible mistake.” And he took the opportunity to clarify his approach to law enforcement.
When I asked if he had trained his team to avoid such mess-ups, Soto-Martinez nodded.
“On the campaign, we sort of inculcated a very clear discipline,” he said. No Twitter wars. No negativity. Nothing that might offer an opening for criticism.
“There’s a lot of eyes on me, you know,” Soto-Martinez added. “I don’t think that level of discipline was permeated through” to his new staffers.
So does he want to get rid of the LAPD?
“We have never said get rid of the police,” he replied.
But what about the abolitionist label?
“When we talk about the police and the role that they play in our city with 40% of the budget … it is squandered. It is misallocated, it is ineffective and it doesn’t work,” Soto-Martinez said.
He brought up programs in Denver and Orange County that direct calls about homelessness or mental health issues to trained professionals instead of law enforcement.
“[An abolitionist] is someone that looks at the very same system that I described and says that this system, in fact, was created to harm communities of color, right?” the council member continued. “And working people. And so an abolitionist is taking that and transforming it into something that actually works.”
I asked if he would ever work with the LAPD.
In fact, he recently sat down with Chief Michel Moore, after Moore requested a meeting.
“He said, ‘Find ways to take my guys off of things that they shouldn’t be doing,” like taking calls for mental health crises or dealing with homelessness, Soto-Martinez recalled. “Did we agree on everything? No. Were there things that we agreed on? Yes.”
I finished my interviews with Soto-Martinez and Saggau with the same question: Would each sit down and talk with the other side?
“I don’t know that we’re going to go break bread and exchange Christmas cards just yet,” Saggau said. “Maybe we don’t ever have to sit with each other, but maybe there are some places where we can say, ‘Hey, let’s give this a shot.’”
“If they cared about the city as a whole, they wouldn’t see me as an enemy,” Soto-Martinez said. “They would see me as a partner. But I do think they see the truth that I’m speaking is a threat.”
So if a meeting happened, what would Soto-Martinez tell them?
“I probably wouldn’t even bring it up,” he said of Lexusgate as we got out of our chairs and walked toward the front door. “I’d be like, ‘Let’s get to know each other.’”
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