LA's New Controller Zeroes In On LAPD, Saying City Needs To Understand 'What Our Payroll Is Getting Us'
When people gathered outside LAPD headquarters last week to protest the police killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, there was more than just the usual gathering of demonstrators, officers and reporters. Newly elected City Controller Kenneth Mejia and some of his staff were there too.
Mejia and his team weren’t there to protest, but to observe.
The move could be interpreted as an early shot across the bow of the LAPD. It infuriated the police union, which claimed Mejia “hates cops.” But the controller said he’s just following through on his campaign promise of tough oversight of the LAPD’s budget and operations.
This past weekend, our team monitored LAPD responses to public demonstrations related to police killings in our city & across the country.— LA City Controller Kenneth Mejia (@lacontroller) January 30, 2023
Our Controller team is always working to deliver transparency & accountability. One way we do that is with on-the-ground monitoring. pic.twitter.com/IVbprP3DMI
Why Mejia Observed Protest
Showing up at a protest to monitor police behavior was an unusual move for a controller. But Mejia is anything but a traditionalist.
Previous controllers and their staff have shown up — sometimes unannounced — to watch city employees do their work as part of performance audits. But Mejia is believed to be the first to show up to watch LAPD officers in the field doing their work.
“We are trying to provide current, on-the-ground information on exactly what our payroll is getting us,” Mejia told LAist. “Usually you do an audit that looks back a year, two years, three years and you know it takes time.”
Mejia said he has requested information on how many officers and equipment were deployed, for how long, and how much it all cost — and that the LAPD is cooperating. He also said he informed the department before his visit and spoke with a lieutenant at the protest.
Police Union Reacts With Outrage
But the police union expressed outrage over the controller’s monitoring of the protests.
“Mejia … [and] his cadre of staff and advisors hate cops,” the L.A. Police Protective League said in a statement. It accused the controller’s staff of endangering officers by trying to talk to them while they were working — something Mejia denies.
The union, which referred to the 31-year-old Mejia as “Kenny,” suggested the controller and his staff are not equipped to professionally evaluate police officers’ behavior. “Kenny’s team appearing at protests to ‘audit’ the LAPD is akin to 5th graders auditing quantum physics at MIT to determine its impact on society,” the statement said.
But one of the controller’s top staff is hardly a grade schooler in policing.
Mejia hired Sergio Perez, the former watchdog of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, as his chief of accountability and oversight. Perez previously worked with the U.S. Department of Justice assessing police agencies across the country.
“It's part of the gold standard in performance auditing,” Perez said of combining field observations with information received directly from agencies like the LAPD.
In its statement, the police union was unrelenting.
“This is nothing more than Kenny’s latest stunt to garner attention for himself,” it said. The union compared him to New York Congressman George Santos — claiming Mejia lied to voters about his qualifications.
Asked to respond to the union’s statement, Mejia issued his own: "oh interesting... we still have a job to do: provide transparency and accountability on our tax dollars (good things) which we are doing across multiple departments." He also noted no city union supported him during the campaign, including the police union.
The police union clearly sees Mejia as a threat, said Pomona College political science professor Sara Sadhwani, who noted that “we are seeing the new controller push his office in new directions.”
The union’s angry response demonstrates “that the gloves are coming off,” she said. “We’ll have to wait and see how this continues to play out when it comes to the budget of the LAPD.”
The controller does not have any authority over the LAPD budget. But Mejia can draw a lot of attention to it, as he did with a giant billboard during his campaign. It illustrated how the department takes up more than half the city’s general fund and is believed to have been instrumental in galvanizing support for him in the city’s progressive movement.
Perez said the controller’s office may employ billboards again or social media to inform people about audit results — instead of thick reports read by virtually nobody. One recent tweet highlighting the office's waste, fraud and abuse team featured the controller's corgi.
📣 Accountability Alert 📣— LA City Controller Kenneth Mejia (@lacontroller) February 2, 2023
Our office has a Fraud, Waste, & Abuse team.
This team investigates complaints about misuse of City resources, theft, & abuse of power.
If you’ve spotted this anywhere in City government, please report it: https://t.co/tvUV3cfw3t or 1-866-428-1514 pic.twitter.com/PdYtr8C5QB
An Eye On Other Departments
Mejia says he is looking for efficiencies at other departments too — he said his staff already has visited animal shelters and observed housing inspectors. Perez, who also served as the DWP’s first inspector general, said the controller’s office intends to closely watch how Mayor Karen Bass tackles homelessness.
“We know that there’s a lot lacking in that space — a data vacuum with regards to a lot of homelessness spending and results,” Perez said. “We are looking to fill that vacuum.”
But the police department appears to be an early focus.
Mejia is launching an audit of the LAPD’s Air Support Division, which operates 17 helicopters, according to the controller. He announced it in text superimposed on a video that showed a noisy helicopter hovering in the sky.
“Are helicopters effective in reducing crime?” reads one question. “What steps does LAPD take to reduce negative quality of life & environmental impacts caused by helicopters?” reads another.
📣 ANNOUNCEMENT: Auditing LAPD helicopters 📣— LA City Controller Kenneth Mejia (@lacontroller) February 3, 2023
What is the effectiveness of LAPD helicopter operations?
We’re starting an audit on this topic this month.
Our plan is to release the report in late summer. pic.twitter.com/AcwmkYrzaj
If the controller is effective in communicating information about a department that has long resisted scrutiny, then the police union may have something to worry about.
Former City Controller Rick Tuttle, who supported Mejia’s opponent in the election, applauded his decision to show up to a police protest. “The way you do it is to be there on the ground,” said Tuttle, who served from 1985 to 2001.
He said Mejia should also consider other questions when looking at how the LAPD polices protests.
“As you get deeper into it, you also get into the question of, well, what would the cost be to the residents of the city — to the business owners and others — if they were not deployed?” said Tuttle, referring to the possibility of injuries and property damage caused during unrest.
Mejia promised fair audits and oversight, including of how the LAPD handled the Tyre Nichols protests. “I think what we want to do is look at what data we get and definitely compare with what we saw on the ground and add it all up — then provide analysis,” he said.
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