It has been an article of faith in Los Angeles politics for more than a quarter-century: Build the Police Department and its budget, and you will build a stronger, safer city.
Mayors from moderate Republican Richard Riordan to liberal Democrat Antonio Villaraigosa charted that course, with special emphasis on expanding the LAPD to at least 10,000 sworn officers.
But city leaders now appear ready to slow and perhaps reverse that longtime trend, following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody and a wave of rage, sorrow and demands in Los Angeles that the government provide poor and minority communities with more than a police presence.
Mayor Eric Garcetti said he will direct $250 million to youth jobs, health initiatives and “peace centers” to heal trauma, and will allow those who have suffered discrimination to collect damages. The money will have to be cut from other city operations; Garcetti, backed by City Council President Nury Martinez and his new Police Commission president, said as much as $150 million would come from the Los Angeles Police Department.
That is a striking reversal from the budget Garcetti put forward in April, which proposed a 7% spending increase for the LAPD, including a previously agreed-upon package of raises and bonuses for rank-and-file officers.
The shift has already caught attention nationally, Garcetti said.
“I got calls from mayors around the country, some of them saying, ‘I’m so excited,’ and other ones saying: ‘What the hell did you do? Now I gotta shift money,’” Garcetti told political, religious and community leaders Thursday at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Los Angeles. “That’s exactly the point. It starts someplace, and we say we are going to be who we want to be, or we’re going to continue being the killers that we are.”
Garcetti’s office said his “killers” remark referred to police agencies across the country. The mayor suggested that the shift of funds, if approved by the City Council, would push the LAPD’s budget to less than 50% of the city’s general fund.
In the budget he released in April, the LAPD got 53.8% of the money not designated for other specific uses.
Police Chief Michel Moore said Thursday that making a reduction of as much as $150 million might mean cutting personnel because 96% to 97% of the department’s budget comprises salaries and other payroll costs.
“This is a sizable and sobering amount and one that you initially look at it with some concern as to how one might find such a level,” Moore said. “My commitment is to be earnest and also to hear perspectives of others.”
The department now stands at 9,985 officers. Past reductions have often been made by slashing overtime hours. But cutting overtime can mean reducing actual patrols on the streets because it is cheaper to pay overtime than to hire more officers.
Some city leaders signaled that this could be a starting point for broader changes.
“These times demand a more careful reflection of our city’s priorities and values — no single department should be exempt from review,” Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez said.
The plan to cut the police and other departments to fund new social service programs arose only in recent days, so details remained scarce. Garcetti acknowledged the proposal was being shaped at “light speed” and said he hoped for more details by Friday.
He said the new funds would specifically address “structural racism” against black people. He said the money will be taken from other sources “to put it into health, to put it into hope, to put it into housing and to put it into healing.”
As recently as last weekend, Garcetti gave no hint that he would consider decreasing LAPD funding.
“I know that there’s some who call for defunding or having fewer police officers,” Garcetti said at a news briefing Sunday. “I’ve always seen the departments, the more that they’re underfunded, the worse things can happen.”
But Wednesday, a group of labor and community leaders criticized Garcetti for what they saw as the overly aggressive response by the LAPD to protesters who have flooded streets in the last week following Floyd’s death. The leaders wrote a letter asking Garcetti for a cut of “at least” $250 million from the Police Department’s $1.8-billion budget.
Among the groups calling for the changes were local chapters of the powerful Service Employees International Union, United Teachers Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, or LAANE. Some coalition leaders followed up by meeting Garcetti at City Hall.
They urged Garcetti not to repeat the mistakes that followed the civil unrest of 1992, in which the hardest-hit communities languished for many years, with few improvements.
“This is no time for half-measures that do not acknowledge the central importance of anti-Black racism to this crisis,” the coalition’s letter said. “Investments must be targeted to the specific people and communities that have been most impacted by over-policing, using data that specifically calls out race — not divided equally between council districts as in the politics of the past.”
The call for reducing police spending, in favor of other priorities, marked a notable departure from the city’s politics ever since the 1992 riots that followed the acquittal of four police officers involved in the beating of a black man, Rodney King.
Businessman Riordan won the mayor’s office in 1993 with a pledge to increase the LAPD by nearly 3,000 officers, to 10,000. His campaign slogan? “Tough enough to turn L.A. around.” His successor, former City Atty. James Hahn, pledged to add more police. And civil rights activist Villaraigosa pledged to complete Riordan’s mission of building a 10,000-officer LAPD, a mark achieved in 2013.
“If you look at the arc of the city’s history for three decades, there is a tectonic shift here with this growing constituency for reform,” said Zev Yaroslavsky, a former city and county lawmaker and now instructor at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. “There is the emergence of this multiracial coalition of people, who have formed a powerful constituency, and they are making their voices heard.”
Leaders of the union that represents Los Angeles police officers said they found the shift abrupt and disingenuous.
Los Angeles Police Protective League officers said they had a phone conference Wednesday with Garcetti and council members Rodriguez and Curren Price.
The political leaders said they wanted to talk to the union about changes to the police budget but then, before those discussions occurred, announced their intention to make cuts, according to the union.
“In the private phone call, the politicians praised our officers’ work and professionalism,” said Jerretta Sandoz, vice president of the police union. “During their TV spectacle, they placed the blame of Los Angeles’ social problems squarely on the shoulders of our officers. It was hypocritical and political doublespeak of the highest order, and we refuse to participate in this charade.”
In a statement, Sandoz added: “It was one of the most craven, disingenuous political sleights of hands we have seen in some time.”
Garcetti’s supporters said he had repeatedly praised police in the field, noting that a letter sent to all city employees Thursday thanked officers for doing their job “selflessly and honorably.”
Those who built the LAPD to its current size recalled that a bigger force had been promoted as one that would treat citizens more humanely. Reformers said that the old Police Department had been forced into a command and control model because it did not have time to get to know citizens and communities.
The increased number of officers was supposed to improve “community policing” and allow cops to do more than just make arrests. But a kinder and gentler approach has advanced fitfully, according to those who follow the department closely.
Connie Rice, a civil rights lawyer and activist for LAPD reform for decades, called Garcetti’s proposed redirection of funds away from the department “a gesture that is satisfying on a superficial level.” But, she added, “It’s really not enough.”
Rice called for regional cooperation on public safety issues and a paradigm shift that makes policing just one service operating in cooperation with healthcare providers, social workers, recreation specialists and a range of others. Giving police the proper backup from others will allow them to adopt a more supportive mission, Rice said, rather than “a mission of shock and awe and suppression.”
Some of the activist groups pushing hardest for a change called the discussion of reduced police funding an “interim” victory.
But Black Lives Matter Los Angeles leaders said they would like to see the share of the city’s general fund devoted to police reduced from about 50% to 5.7%.
Said Melina Abdullah, one of the leaders of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles: “City Council and Mayor Garcetti need to know that we’re fighting for truly transformative change here and won’t be bought off with just this minimal amount of money.”
Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.