Over the past week, thousands of protestors have taken to the streets of Los Angeles and, through their chants, graffiti, and signage, the protestors have made one clear demand of their city government: defund the LAPD.
On Wednesday night, those protestors claimed a significant victory when Mayor Eric Garcetti announced in a press conference that he will not be raising the LAPD’s budget this year, despite a previously announced budget proposal that would have raised it by seven percent, allocating $1,857,330,549 to the Los Angeles Police Department. That number represents nearly 54 percent of the city’s unrestricted revenues, or nearly 30 percent of the entire city budget. Other departments would have seen significant cuts. Funds for Section 8 vouchers, DWP, airports, and certain other large expenditures draw from a pool not considered part of the mayor’s budget.
He also added that the city will “identify $250 million in cuts so we can invest in jobs, in health, in education, and in healing,” particularly programs that might serve historically marginalized communities.
During the conference, L.A. Police Commission President Eileen Decker also announced that her panel will seek to identify $100 million to $150 million in cuts from the LAPD, echoing the demands of a City Council motion proposed by City Council president Nury Martinez earlier in the day.
Martinez’s motion, which has yet to be voted on in council, asks that these funds be reinvested into disadvantaged communities and communities of color. “If we are going to finally end the sin of racism and all of its illogical, dehumanizing and sometimes deadly consequences, including in our police department, then we have to provide real solutions for real people who need our assistance,” Martinez said in a statement.
Defunding the police an idea that has for years been pushed by activist groups like Black Lives Matter LA, which has spearheaded several of the recent protests in the city. In late May, Black Lives Matter teamed up with a coalition of other local activist groups to release a “People’s Budget” for Los Angeles, which advocates for funding to be divested from the LAPD and into public services, including housing, healthcare, and the built environment.
Based on survey results from more than 1,400 Angelenos and a participatory budgeting process, the document was pitched as an alternative to Garcetti’s proposed 2020-21 budget. Activists said that budget would have created more opportunities for police violence against people of color, while removing critical services from communities that need them—especially as an increasing number of people struggle to pay their rent and stay housed.
“It’s absolutely a zero-sum game,” says Melina Abdullah, a professor of Pan-African Studies at Cal State LA and co-founder of Black Lives Matter. “Every dollar [Garcetti] is spending on police, he’s choosing not to spend those dollars on things that make communities safe, like mental health and good jobs and all of those other things that the city could be spending money on.”
Despite a nearly month-long push from activists oppose to the Mayor’s budget—which involved hours’ worth of heated public comment at City Council—the document was adopted by default on June 1st, as mandated by the City Charter. However, financial uncertainty resulting from COVID-19 means the budget is far from set in stone. Officials have said there will likely be more cuts and changes made to it in the City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee before the start of the fiscal year on July 1. As unrest in the city has heightened, a growing number of councilmembers have asked that LAPD funding be put back on the table.
In addition to Martinez, Councilmembers Marqueece Harris-Dawson, David Ryu, and Mike Bonin have also expressed interest in trimming the LAPD budget during upcoming Budget and Finance Committee deliberations. Changes to the budget can also be implemented throughout the year.
Bonin says that the Mayor’s proposed budget was “put together on the back of a napkin in the middle of a pandemic,” and was based on unrealistically optimistic projections of city revenue, making it likely that further cuts will happen. He says that instead of slashing more funding for homelessness, parks, and other city services, the city should reopen contracts with the police, in order to freeze or cap their overtime pay and defer raises. “Step one is reopen the contract, cut the overtime,” says Bonin. “Step two is we need to start building the infrastructure for the alternatives to having police be our first responders to every problem.”
Ryu says that the 54 percent figure cited by activists is somewhat misleading, since it only represents the portion of the city’s general fund that is given to police—libraries, schools, and other city departments also receive money from restricted funds, says Ryu. Regardless, he still wants funding cuts to city departments that provide housing and other services to be restored—which would likely require taking money from the LAPD. “The first thing we cut in this budget was social services, and that is unacceptable,” says Ryu.
No officials have expressed interest in lowering the LAPD budget to the level proposed by Peoples’ Budget advocates, who say that fewer than six percent of general funds should go to law enforcement. Regardless of how officials choose to proceed, making cuts to the LAPD’s share of the general fund won’t be as simple as redrawing lines on a pie chart. The LAPD has for years received the lion’s share of the city’s discretionary funds. This year’s budget, which includes a package of raises and bonuses, is only 7% higher than last year.
Reopening police contracts to reduce the LAPD budget, even to the same level that it was during the 2019-2020 fiscal year, will mean negotiating with the city’s powerful police union, the Los Angeles Police Protective League. In 2019, the LAPPL had more than $11 million in revenues and $16 million in assets, and its political action committee has made campaign and/or independent expenditure contributions to every sitting city council member over the past decade.
The union has stated that it requires additional funding to prepare officers who are now expected to perform the duties of social workers, EMTs, and therapists. In a statement released on Tuesday, the union deemed the People’s Budget “irresponsible,” and said laying off more than 9,000 officers would lead to in longer emergency response times and difficulty completing investigations. They called the proposal “a dream come true for gang members and criminals and would expose every single neighborhood in Los Angeles to an unprecedented level of crime.”
Regardless, advocates say they have no plans to stop pushing for a future with fewer—or no–police. They say the city should be investing in alternative safety measures, like restorative justice, and argue officers shouldn’t be filling social service roles in the first place.
“I think that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” says Melina Abdullah. “Social workers have advanced degrees and spend a whole lot of time and training and energy to become social workers. Police can’t possibly think that they are either that they either can or should be social workers.”
Steve Ducey, an organizer for Ground Game L.A., says the city’s response to the unrest of the past week has only heightened the urgency of this issue for activists. “It’s a tremendous irony that here in this moment this national unrest is taking place, this is exactly what the People’s Budget was talking about,” says Ducey. “If you want a meaningful impact on people’s lives, we need to divest from what we’re what we’re seeing—effectively a massive militarized police response to peaceful protests.”
The City Council’s Budget and Finance Committee meetings to discuss further amendments to the budget will be held on June 8, 15, 22, and 29.
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