On Tuesday, five Los Angeles City Councilmembers introduced a motion asking the city to draw up a plan for an “unarmed model of crisis response” that, in non-criminal situations, would replace LAPD officers with unarmed, non-law enforcement service providers.
If passed, the motion would have city officials look into ways to divert calls for service about non-violent situations—such as mental health crises, substance abuse issues, and neighbor disputes—away from city police, and towards unarmed professionals with specialized training, including medical professionals, mental health workers, and homeless outreach workers.
The motion was introduced just a day after representatives from Black Lives Matter L.A. met with councilmembers in a special session to formally present their People’s Budget for the city. The crowd-sourced budget plan—originally released in late May—asks the city to drastically decrease its police funding in order to pay for social services. The plan has gained traction among other local advocates as protests in response to the police killings of George Floyd and other unarmed black individuals have broken out across the nation, and “defund the police” has become a rallying cry.
During Monday’s session, Black Lives Matter L.A. co-founder Melina Abdullah urged councilmembers to take bold steps to reimagine public safety as the nation reckons with the role of police. “This is a moment where the world has cracked open, and you all have the opportunity to really be courageous and do something different in the city of Los Angeles,” said Abdullah.
Councilmember Herb Wesson, who authored Tuesday’s motion along with City Council President Nury Martinez, says that his decision to introduce this motion was spurred by the recent outcry from activists. If the legislation passes, which he anticipates it will, he wants advocates from Black Lives Matter and other local groups to continue to help shape new models of public safety for the city.
“From New York to California, from Washington to Florida, there have been conversations, protests, demonstrations, and marches,” Wesson says. “At the center of that, the tip of the spear, has been Black Lives Matter and their coalition of nonprofits. They should be afforded the opportunity to be engaged in this conversation.”
The motion calls on city departments to analyze existing alternative public safety models such as the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon, which dispatches a medic and a mental health worker to respond to situations like welfare checks or potential overdoses. A similar plan will soon be rolled out in San Francisco, where Mayor London Breed announced a new wave of police reforms last week.
Following Wesson’s announcement of the motion on Twitter and Instagram on Tuesday morning, Abdullah praised the proposal, calling it “the kind of courageous step that [Black Lives Matter advocates] were looking for.”
Today I, alongside my colleagues, will introduce a motion to replace LAPD officers with unarmed, non-law enforcement agencies who will be responsible for responding to non-violent calls for service.
— Herb J. Wesson, Jr. (@HerbJWesson) June 16, 2020
“We’re hearing the voices of the people, saying that we don’t want police responding to things that they don’t have any business responding to,” said Abdullah. “We think that this will clear the way for people like social workers, mental health providers, EMT teams, and counselors to be responding to those things that really are in their universe.”
Robin Petering, a policy organizer for the homeless advocacy group Ktown for All, expressed similar optimism about the proposed motion, noting that it has the potential to provide the L.A.’s tens of thousands of unhoused individuals with real care instead of placing them into the criminal justice system.
“We’ve been fighting for the city to remove things that actively criminalize homelessness,” said Petering. “Criminalizing people in poverty just perpetuates cycles of poverty rather than uplifting folks. If you interact with law enforcement and get arrested, all of those things can have an impact on employment, housing, and the way that you access care.”
According to the Los Angeles County Homeless Authority’s most recent homeless count—which was released last Friday and is based on data collected before the pandemic—more than 66,000 people are currently unhoused in L.A. County, and Black people are four times as likely to be experiencing homelessness in L.A. than the overall population.
Petering said the motion would provide an “incredible opportunity” to rethink the city’s systems, but stressed that it is critical for any potential crisis response program to be supported with adequate funding. “I think the first thing, especially with the details of this, is to make sure that it comes with the right, long-term investment,” she said.
Wesson says it would be “folly” to speculate on what his plan would mean for LAPD funding, and that those decisions would be made later. “As we begin to have real meaningful discussions about this, that’s when costs will be factored in,” Wesson says.
During Tuesday’s meeting, councilmembers also voted to pass a motion asking the city to identify $100 million to $150 million in possible cuts from the Los Angeles Police Department’s proposed $3.1 billion budget. Previously, the budget was expected to increase this year, in part to pay for a package of bonuses for college-educated officers.
Craig Lally, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, told the Los Angeles Times in May that these bonuses were necessary because the nature of police work had evolved, and police were expected to act like “therapists, drug treatment counselors, social workers, and EMTs, among many other things.”
In a statement on Tuesday, the LAPPL said they agreed with Councilmember Wesson that there are some calls police should not be responding to, and were open to discussions about operational changes.
“We are more than willing to talk about how, or if, we respond to non-criminal and non-emergency calls so we can free up time to respond quickly to 911 calls, crackdown on violent crime, and property crime and expand our community policing efforts,” said the LAPPL Board of Directors. “We just need to be sure it’s done in a safe way for everyone, especially those that may be responding to these types of calls in the future.”