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Criminal Justice

LA's 'Turbocharged' Year of Police Reform After George Floyd's Murder: What's Next?

LAPD officers from the Metro squad met protesters with force. In this image the middler officers wields a long baton like a baseball bat and appears to be swinging forward at protesters, some of whom have their hands raised.
LAPD officers confront protestors at a demonstration last year against George Floyd's murder.
(Chava Sanchez
/
LAist)
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In the year since the murder of George Floyd, police reform has taken center stage in Los Angeles, the first time that has happened since the beating of Rodney King in 1991. Reformers have won major victories at the ballot box, cuts to the LAPD budget and new initiatives to remove the police from traffic stops and mental health calls.

Black Lives Leader Melina Abdullah stands underneath a tree at Pan Pacific Park, one year after her group led a massive protest over the murder of George Floyd.
Black Lives Matter-LA leader Melina Abdullah at Pan Pacific Park, one year after her group led a massive protest there over George Floyd's murder.
(Frank Stoltze
/
LAist)

For many, the movement's focus has evolved from reforming policing to reimagining it, said Melanie Ochoa, who focuses on police practices at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “Activists no longer want to nip around the edges,” she said, arguing that the new agenda is to “eliminate contact with police in as many ways as possible.”

At the same time, the movement’s progress has been uneven. The drive to further cut police funding has stalled, there has been almost no change at the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and some in law enforcement are warning many of the reforms threaten public safety.

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Cutting Budgets And Electing Reformers

There have been big changes via the ballot box:

  • Reformer George Gascón ousted incumbent L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey in the November 2020 election. Gascón’s promise to review hundreds of past police shootings for possible prosecution of the officers involved helped him beat incumbent Lacey, who was heavily supported by police unions.
  • Voters elected L.A. County Supervisor Holly Mitchell — a former state senator who championed police reform in Sacramento — to the Board of Supervisors.
  • Voters approved Measure J, which requires the county to spend at least 10% of its discretionary money on social programs designed to keep people out of the criminal justice system.

There have also been funding cuts and policy shifts:

  • The Los Angeles City Council cut the LAPD budget by $150 million.
  • The Los Angeles Unified School District cut its police budget by 35%.
  • The city council is developing a program to use unarmed social workers instead of police to respond to some mental health calls.
  • The city council is studying whether it could remove police from traffic enforcement.

“I think police reform now has become turbocharged,” said Raphe Sonenshein, director of the Pat Brown Institute at Cal State L.A. “I don’t think anybody could have possibly imagined that so much would be on the table right now.”

Change, But Not Transformation

In the years before Floyd’s murder, you barely heard the phrase “defund the police.” Afterward, they were everywhere — scribbled on cardboard signs, sidewalks and even LAPD headquarters.

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The killing inspired a new wave of activists who have learned how to lobby city hall and read byzantine police budgets. They’ve shown little patience for the slow wheels of government although they have been forced to wait for them to produce change.

Within weeks of Floyd’s death, the city council approved the $150 million cut to the LAPD budget. The department stopped hiring and its ranks fell by about 500 officers, to approximately 9,500.

Hollywood Black Lives Matter Protest June 7 George Floyd
A woman at the June 7, 2020 protest in Hollywood.
(Chava Sanchez
/
LAist)

It was far short of the defunding that Black Lives Matter and other activists wanted, nor was it a transformation. But it was an unprecedented reduction in funding to a department whose budget traditionally had been off limits when it came to cutbacks.

Then, this year, prompted in part by rising crime, Mayor Eric Garcetti and the city council bumped the department’s budget back up by about $50 million, which will allow the LAPD to regain 250 officers.

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Last June, the Los Angeles Unified School District slashed its $70 million police budget by 35%. In February, the LAUSD approved a plan to reduce its police force by 70 officers, to 211, because school police no longer work directly on campuses. That was once unthinkable for policymakers, and it has sparked concerns among some people about student safety.

‘It Was A Gut Punch’

For roughly three years before Floyd’s murder, the PUSH LA coalition had been trying to convince city leaders to remove the LAPD from traffic stops. It pointed to data that showed Black drivers have been much more likely to be stopped and questioned by officers than people of other races. In some cases, traffic stops for minor violations have led to the excessive use of force.

Leslie Cooper Johnson of the Community Coalition stands underneath a mural at the group south L.A. headquarters.
Leslie Cooper Johnson leads the Community Coalition's campaign to remove LAPD officers from traffic enforcement.
(Mike Kelley)

After Floyd’s killing and the ensuing street protests, officials were suddenly more open to talking, said Leslie Cooper Johnson of the Community Coalition. The coalition seized the opportunity.

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In February, the city council approved a study to look at removing LAPD officers from traffic enforcement. It was a big victory for the coalition, but Johnson was frustrated when the city said it would take up to a year just to hire the consultant for the study.

“When we heard that, it was a gut punch,” Johnson said. “It’s difficult to keep people engaged over such a long lull.”

In another victory for reformers, the city council voted to develop a program that sends social workers, instead of cops, to nonviolent mental health and substance abuse calls. City staff plan to model the effort on the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon. Run out of a mental health clinic, CAHOOTS deploys teams made up of a medic and a crisis worker — no police.

It’s unclear what the program’s scope will be, but it’s slated to start by this fall or winter.

‘What Could Go Wrong?’

One of the reformers’ biggest challenges over the past year has been the dramatic increase in shootings and homicides. Both LAPD Chief Michel Moore and Sheriff Alex Villanueva have suggested even minor cuts to their departments have contributed to a double digit increase in the murder rate.

“You know, it’s real simple,” Villanueva said recently on the Gil Contreras Podcast. “You’ve got more crime, more crooks, and less cops. What could go wrong?”

Hollywood Black Lives Matter Protest June 7 George Floyd
Protestors at the June 7, 2020 demonstration in Hollywood.
(Chava Sanchez
/
LAist)

So far there’s no evidence linking police budget cuts to the rise in shootings. In fact, there’s been a surge in violence across the country during the pandemic — both in cities that have reduced policing and those that have not.

The Police Protective League (PPL), the union that represents rank-and-file LAPD officers, is sometimes portrayed as opposing all reforms. That’s not true. It supports sending social workers to certain 911 calls.

At the same time, the PPL opposes redirecting any funding away from police, removing officers from enforcing traffic stops and a range of legislation that it helped defeat in Sacramento last year, including a bill that would have ensured that cops who get fired for serious misconduct can’t get hired at another department. (The Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the union that represents sheriff’s deputies, helped defeat the legislation.)

The PPL has also reached into its treasury to fund a political offensive against Councilman Mike Bonin, one of the most outspoken supporters of reform. The group will spend "whatever it takes" to remove Bonin from office, said PPL spokesperson Tom Saggau — an effort other councilmembers are no doubt warily watching.

'Rainbows And Puppies’

At the Sheriff’s department, there have been far fewer changes over the past year. There’s been no discussion of removing deputies from traffic stops or of reducing the budget, said the ACLU’s Ochoa.

“The path forward is a lot clearer on the city side than it is on the county side,” she said. One big reason for that is the LAPD chief reports to the mayor, but the elected sheriff reports to no one.

“Large transformative change may be well off in the future or it may never happen at all. It’s always political will … these changes are hard.”

Hollywood Black Lives Matter Protest June 7 George Floyd
Hollywood, June 7, 2020.
(Chava Sanchez
/
LAist)

The County Board of Supervisors pressured Villanueva to follow state law and release the names of deputies who have shot people. And there were two important steps toward reform not necessarily driven by Floyd. One was a court ruling that said the sheriff must comply with subpoenas from the Civilian Oversight Commission. Another was the state attorney general’s decision to investigate the department for possible civil rights violations related to excessive use of force and planting of evidence, among other things.

Villanueva has been dismissive of reform efforts in general, warning that those seeking change are endangering the public. Earlier this month, he mocked the movement’s language as “always very glowing terms: reimagining, reinvesting, all these very nice warm and fuzzy rainbows and puppies-type things.”

Reformers counter it’s disappointing that a year after the murder of George Floyd, law enforcement leaders like Villanueva fail to appreciate the need for change.

‘These Changes Are Hard’

Sitting at a picnic table in Pan Pacific Park on a recent morning, Black Lives Matter-LA leader Melina Abduallah reflected on the movement’s extraordinary growth as she watched joggers and strollers pass by.

It was in Pan Pacific Park where several thousand people gathered five days after Floyd’s murder, in the organization’s largest rally ever. One could say that demonstration launched L.A.’s modern police reform movement.

Hollywood Black Lives Matter Protest June 7 George Floyd
Protestors make signs at the June 7, 2020 demonstration in Hollywood.
(Chava Sanchez
/
LAist)

Abdullah has been thrilled with that movement’s growth over the past year. She is also well aware that it faces plenty of determined opposition. But she is undeterred.

“We are going to continue to push forward even if it takes time for people to catch up with what we are saying,” she said.

For Ochoa, the fate of the movement rests in its ability to convince elected leaders to try a different approach to public safety.

“Large transformative change may be well off in the future or it may never happen at all,” she said. “It’s always political will … these changes are hard.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the PPL has launched a recall campaign against Mike Bonin.

What questions do you have about criminal justice and public safety in Southern California?
Frank Stoltze covers a new movement for criminal justice reform at a time when not everybody shares the same vision.