George Floyd's Death Is One Of Many Reasons Activists Are Pushing For A 'People's Budget' In LA

Protesters calling attention to the killing of George Floyd took to the streets of Los Angeles on Wednesday May 27, 2020. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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Pastor Stephen "Cue" Jn-Marie said he knows that many white people might not understand why he and other black Los Angeles community leaders led protestors onto the 101 Freeway on Wednesday afternoon, briefly blocking eastbound traffic.

"We've been dealing with a lot of pain throughout our existence here in America," Jn-Marie said. "To compound that, to see George Floyd's murder — I call it a modern-day lynching."

Floyd, a man who'd already suffered the loss of his job to the coronavirus crisis, died in police custody in Minneapolis this week. Video of the incident showed he was handcuffed and restrained by an officer who dug his knee into his neck for several minutes, while Floyd pleaded, saying he couldn't breathe.

Protests have roiled Minneapolis and several cities, including Los Angeles, since the video was released.

Jn-Marie, the cofounder of The Church Without Walls in Skid Row, said he recognizes the effects of institutional racism just in the disproportionate number of African American men and women he sees living on the street in Los Angeles.

And the same anger that has motivated demonstrations against police in cases like the deaths of Mike Brown, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Charly "Africa" Keunang — and now, Floyd — is fueling a united group of activists to fight to change how money is spent at City Hall.

THE 'PEOPLE'S BUDGET'

If you've tuned into a Los Angeles City Council meeting lately (livestreamed here), you've heard it: public comment lines packed with people asking councilmembers to reject Mayor Eric Garcetti's pared-down fiscal year 2020-21 budget proposal, and to rethink the shape of city spending as the city faces possibly the most serious fiscal crisis in its history.

These voices are also on social media, with hashtags like "#CareNotCops" and "BlockTheLABudget" — both of which broke into the top trending Twitter list for L.A. last week.

Jn-Marie summed up the sentiment: "We don't want to give money to police that we should be giving to vital services."

A coalition of community groups and activists helmed by Black Lives Matter-L.A. is pushing to slash funding for the Los Angeles Police Department in favor of investment in social workers, housing, public transportation, health care and other services.

Their goal: to convince the council to call emergency budget committee meetings to overhaul the mayor's plan. According to the city charter, if the council doesn't act by Monday, June 1, the city budget will be adopted as is and take effect July 1. (That doesn't mean city spending is set in stone, however — more on that later.)

"We were outraged when we saw a budget that cut virtually every other city department, including the ones most needed right now in the midst of the pandemic and the economic fallout — while actually increasing funding to LAPD," said Dr. Melina Abdullah, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter - L.A.

The groups — including Community Coalition, Los Angeles Community Action Network, Stop LAPD Spying, Ground Game L.A., Sunrise Movement and more than a dozen more — have developed a "People's Budget" outline that shifts spending from law enforcement to alternatives like crisis management, restorative justice programs, and community-based safety measures.

The coalition published its report after surveying close to 1,500 Angelenos and engaging an audience of roughly 10,000 on YouTube and various social media channels, said David Turner, a Black Lives Matter - L.A. researcher.

"The biggest takeaway is that people want alternatives over policing," Turner said. "And people want to invest in the things that they know work."

"Why are we investing over half of our budget in a police department that quite frankly, hurts more people than it helps?" Turner added.

One call-in protester to a recent city council meeting put his comments in a song:

Nury, delay this budget vote today.
They shouldn't get any more.
It's so obvious to see:
L.A. spends too much on the LAPD.
Stop, stop, stop funding LAPD.
Stop sponsoring anti-black violence in the community.

- Adam Smith, an organizer with White People 4 Black Lives, singing to the tune of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," by Bob Dylan, via telephone during the public comment period at a L.A. City Council meeting.

THE POLICE UNION RESPONDS

The board of directors for the Los Angeles Police Protective League (LAPPL), the union that represents sworn police officers, responded to LAist questions in an email. Their statement is excerpted here:

As usual, these groups either don't want to rely upon facts or are incapable of telling the truth when it comes to policing Los Angeles. The Mayor's budget includes all contractually scheduled and agreed upon pay raises and incentives for every bargaining unit in the city not just for police officers. It is no surprise that the Mayor and City Council are keeping public safety services, as a top priority.

Police services are a fundamental and essential service the City provides to its residents and they should be protected.

These groups have failed again to make their case, to convince voters or a majority of their local elected officials that their worldview is the right one. They bristle at holding criminals accountable, they don't believe in the incarceration of dangerous repeat offenders and they have no plan to fix anything.

Cutting the police department will put our community at greater risk but sure makes for a good headline.

POLICE SPENDING DRAWS CRITICISM

The LAPD is one of the only departments spared from the mayor's belt-tightening cuts, announced last month.

The police budget is slated to increase by nearly $120 million in general fund spending beginning July 1, including expenses from a new contract for police officers that was negotiated last year: 4.8% pay raises, $34 million in additional overtime for sworn employees and a new $41 million bonus program for officers with college degrees. (The L.A. Times highlighted the program this week.)

The proposed 2020-21 spending on LAPD accounts for just under 54% of the city's unrestricted revenues.

At the same time, when the new city budget kicks in, nearly 16,000 civilian city workers will get a 10% pay reduction. Paradoxically, many of those workers are in line for a pay hike thanks to their own updated labor contracts — but they're also being partially furloughed to help L.A. save $230 million in the next fiscal year.

These furloughs will indirectly hurt police staffing — requiring patrol officers to be reassigned to cover critical civilian employee shifts. According to a May 19 City Administrative Officer report, initial analysis shows "there would be a corresponding reduction of 220,000 hours to patrol deployments."

On top of personnel reductions, which equate to shrinking services, city budget analysts point out that cuts are planned to nearly every city department, reducing things like graffiti removal, lengthening 311 call wait times, and slicing into programs like Vision Zero, which aims to eliminate traffic deaths.

Sworn firefighters and some city workers involved in core services like sanitation are also saved from furloughs.

"If we care about taking care of vulnerable people at any level — this budget goes against all of that," said Lydia Nicholson, a member of the L.A. Tenants Union who wants to see funding restored to the Housing and Community Investment Department, which faces a cut of more than 9% under the mayor's proposal. "I think that the city has the ability to actually help people."

'CARE NOT COPS'

The union representing the LAPD says uniformed police are expected to provide an ever-expanding array of services, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"In addition to traditional policing, our officers are on the frontline of providing services to our community during this pandemic, from helping to transport homeless residents to shelters to providing security at these shelters," the LAPPL said in a statement. "We cannot shelter in place and we put ourselves in harm's way daily.

But activists don't agree that LAPD funding levels should be justified by pointing out the multiple roles that police officers fill when they encounter people on the street.

"Police officers, even when well-intentioned, are not social workers," said Laura Abrams, chair of social welfare at UCLA's Luskin School of Public Affairs.

On a conference call organized by the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, Abrams described the special training involved in becoming a certified social worker — including adhering to a code of ethics and gaining the ability to appropriately advocate for vulnerable communities.

"These skills or training cannot be paralleled by any work in law enforcement," Abrams added. "Social workers are also on the front lines right now. And they're getting cuts and laid off."

"We want people to stay in their lane. Police shouldn't be doing things that they have no business or expertise doing," said Melina Abdullah with Black Lives Matter-L.A.

Some behind the People's Budget movement say they hope the dire revenue outlook caused by COVID-19 will force the city to reopen contract negotiations with the Los Angeles Police Protective League.

"It doesn't matter how much you're cutting out of [other departments]," said Chris Roth, an activist with the community groups Ground Game L.A. and Ktown For All. "It's never going to make up for the shortfall that's being forced upon us by these increases in the LAPD budget."

Councilmember Mike Bonin, who represents parts of Brentwood, Pacific Palisades, Venice and Westchester in District 11, said there will have to be some tough conversations with labor unions.

"I don't see any way out of this crisis unless we start reopening contract negotiations with all of our labor partners," Bonin said. "We need to start having those conversations now."

But the LAPPL says no new contract talks are happening. "Our understanding is that the Mayor's budget assumed all employee raises, including those negotiated by the civilian workforce are being honored," the union said in an email.

Black Lives Matter co-founder Melina Abdullah speaks to reporters in March following a confrontation at District Attorney Jackie Lacey's home, where Lacey's husband pulled a gun on protesters who rang their doorbell in the early morning hours. (Emily Elena Dugdale/LAist)

WHERE DID THIS FISCAL CRISIS COME FROM?

The global pandemic has blown a crater in Los Angeles' revenue streams — especially sales and hotel occupancy taxes. But critics say the city had already dug itself into a fiscal hole last year when it signed new labor agreements.

After the budget was adopted last July, the city negotiated contracts with unions for police, fire, and civilian city employees. The resulting salary, healthcare and pension costs swallowed projected revenue surpluses, putting Los Angeles on track for deficits of "between $200 and $400 million in each of the next four years," according to an October report from City Administrative Officer Rich Llewellyn, who warned at the time that the city should be curtailing costs to brace for an economic slump that was likely on the horizon.

Then came coronavirus. Instead of a projected recession, the virus plunged the globe into economic freefall. L.A. began spending millions on new homeless shelters, emergency personal protective gear for city workers, and testing to stop the spread of the virus.

Much of that should be reimbursed by the federal government: local authorities can apply to FEMA for 75% of emergency spending costs. Money from the CARES Act, a bailout package passed by Congress and signed by President Trump, has also begun flowing to states and larger cities — but that carries restrictions on how the funding can be spent. CARES Act dollars must be used up by the end of December, and can't be tapped to cover local governments' revenue shortfalls.

House Democrats have passed a new stimulus bill, called the HEROES Act, that includes a trillion dollars of more flexible help for state and local governments. But Republicans in control of the Senate say they won't consider the bill in its current form.

NEXT STEPS

The picture is likely to change, drastically. L.A.'s financial analysts said at a city council meeting last week that the mayor's budget assumes a return to "normal" in July, and predicts a revenue picture far rosier than what's already playing out.

"It's a hot mess. And a foggy mess," Bonin said of the city's financial predicament. "Revenues have never been this uncertain before."

General fund revenues are already running $30 million behind Garcetti's budget assumptions, according to Chief Legislative Analyst Sharon Tso, who presented to the city council last week.

"It is very, very likely that the budget that we have before us may be a 'best-case scenario,'" Tso said, adding more cuts will probably be necessary.

The city is looking at the proposed budget as a placeholder, said budget committee chairman Paul Krekorian during last week's meeting. "That road map is going to be dramatically changed from week to week."

Groups behind the People's Budget say their long-term goal is to change what they call a 'rubber-stamp' attitude for city funding of LAPD.

"Right now, the budget reflects America's priorities. And that is policing," Pastor Stephen "Cue" Jn-Marie said.

UPDATE 10 AM FRIDAY: The estimated number of LAPD patrol hours the CAO projects will be reduced because of civilian worker furloughs was added to the story.