It’s Crime Time in the Mayor’s Race

Cityside Column: As election day approaches, candidates put public safety on the front burner

For much of the past few months, the most pressing issue in the mayor’s race has been homelessness. That makes sense—many Angelenos are irate over tent encampments that have mushroomed across sidewalks, while advocates for people living on the streets and in shelters charge that City Hall doesn’t do enough to get those individuals into permanent housing.

Homelessness remains a hot topic, but it is no longer the only one. With just two months until election day, crime is taking a place on the front burner.

This is not surprising, as nothing matters more to voters than feeling safe. But the positioning of the candidates is fascinating. While everyone hoping to succeed Eric Garcetti has ideas on how to respond to the situation, the rhetoric is ramping up.

Put mall developer Rick Caruso in the lead car—or maybe that’s lead trolley—driving up the ramp. His keep-it-simple campaign website still only lists three issues, and public safety is number two. At a debate on the USC campus last month, the billionaire painted a picture of Los Angeles one matchstick short of a public safety inferno.

“Right now we have some of the worst crime we’ve had in the history of Los Angeles,” he said on stage.

As I wrote after the debate, the statement is bonkers, and Caruso probably knows this better than almost anyone. As he never tires of telling people, he formerly served as president of the Los Angeles Police Commission. He knows crime data.

Certainly, Los Angeles is seeing some worrying trends. The 397 homicides in 2021 was the highest annual total since 2007. Vehicle thefts are at an epidemic level (even if many are recovered a few days after they are swiped). Police Chief Michel Moore has repeatedly discussed a spike in robberies that involve firearms, including untraceable “ghost guns” manufactured on 3D printers.

But for every high-profile murder or smash-and-grab that races across social media and makes the evening news, there’s a dataset that refutes Caruso’s age-of-chaos depiction. The city was seeing more than 1,000 annual murders in the early 1990s. The approximately 12,750 burglaries recorded by the LAPD last year was the lowest annual total in more than a decade. Although armed robberies are up, there were thousands fewer overall robberies last year than in 2017. Los Angeles may not be safer than ever, but it is far from Mad Max territory.

What’s clear is that there is a certain level of worry, and thus every candidate is striving to claim a lane on public safety and convince voters they are innovative and forward-thinking. U.S. Rep. Karen Bass on Tuesday released her plan to combat crime; spinning out of her founding decades ago of the Community Coalition, it is built on preventing law-breaking behavior through addressing issues such as joblessness, income inequality and substance abuse.

Her proposals include establishing an Office of Community Safety in the mayor’s office, and expanding the Community Safety Partnership, which enmeshes police officers in housing projects and other areas. That is also a proposal that Councilman Joe Buscaino has long been touting. Buscaino, a former cop, additionally wants to see more senior lead officers. And before Caruso entered the race, he was the one garnering the most attention for seeking to clear encampments that neighbors complained fed an increase in vehicle break-ins and other crimes.

City Attorney Mike Feuer has a long record of pushing for gun control, and his 11-point public safety platform also touches on community-oriented prevention techniques, as well as ideas such as expanding the use of closed-circuit cameras in high-crime areas.

Councilman Kevin de León also advocates for crime prevention as a base step, as well as seizing illegal firearms. Perhaps his most unique take is treating smash-and-grabs as the result of what his website terms “national organized theft rings.” He proposes working with the California attorney general to takes these entities down.

If it seems like there’s a lot of overlap when it comes to crime platforms, that’s because, well, there is. The candidates’ overlap extends to the size of the LAPD itself. No one is on board with the idea of cutting cops or defunding the police. Most candidates want to add officers, with Buscaino and Caruso calling for expanding the force to 11,000 sworn personnel.

That may appeal to some conservative voters, but it is probably not happening unless Los Angeles annexes Fantasyland. Not only would be it mega-expensive to grow the department bigger than it ever has been, but the LAPD is hemorrhaging police and literally can’t hire fast enough even to keep up with retirements and others leaving the department. In the current fiscal year the LAPD is authorized to have about 9,700 officers. But on Tuesday morning, Moore said the ranks are at 9,390.

“We have now fallen below the 9,400 mark,” he said dejectedly.

If candidates want more cops on the streets, they could start by tweaking LAPD schedules. Unbeknownst to many Angelenos, a significant number of police officers work four 10-hour days a week or three 12-hour shifts. It’s a beloved perk, and though changing to five-day workweeks might mean more police hours, it would likely require going to war with the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the powerful union that represents most rank-and-file officers. And no one in the race wants that war.

If there is one thing to be certain of, it is that, with vote-by-mail ballots hitting homes next month, the topic of public safety will only intensify, and each candidate will seek to persuade voters that they have the best plan to protect the city while simultaneously reforming and reimagining the LAPD.

No matter how safe Los Angeles is, on the election front, it’s crime time.

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