Mayor Karen Bass Turns to Chapter Two: The LAPD

Cityside Column: When it comes to policing, the mayor is reform-minded, but shows no hint of shrinking the department

Karen Bass became mayor of Los Angeles on Dec. 12, and for the first couple of months, nearly everything was about addressing the city’s homelessness crisis. On her first day in office, she declared a State of Emergency; then came a trio of executive directives and the launch of her named-by-Yoda Inside Safe program to move those living in encampments into housing. Her “locked arms” approach has borne fruit—and by that, I mean big pots of money—as she has secured tens of millions of dollars from various levels of government to help achieve her goal on the pressing issue.

Now, slowly, the new mayor’s next chapter is being revealed: Bass is approaching public safety and the ever-controversial Los Angeles Police Department.

A series of moves in recent weeks signal what she prioritizes and where she is going. The radar beeps are fascinating. Bass seems to be charting a course that will resonate with a large swath of Los Angeles while sparking an uproar from a sector that had hoped she’d do something much more radical with the LAPD.

So, what’s the big takeaway? Bass wants better police but has no appetite for fewer officers in the force. She aims for smarter and more effective deployment, particularly when it comes to dealing with people experiencing homelessness or in the midst of a mental health crisis. There is not even a hint of defunding.

And, contrary to the wishes of Black Lives Matter, other activists, and some of the new faces on L.A.’s City Council, Bass is marching into the future arms locked with LAPD Chief Michel Moore. Her approval of Moore was clear when he was awarded a second term (though he has said he only intends to stay for two or three of the possible five years).

Policing took the spotlight on Wednesday morning when Bass showed up at the Police Academy in Elysian Park for the graduation of 39 officers who had completed their training months or years ago, but never had their formal ceremonies, due to the pandemic. Wearing a long black coat in the chilly-for-L.A. morning, the mayor was right behind Moore as they spent almost 30 minutes dutifully approaching each blue-clad, revolver-holding graduate, smiling and conversing during what the program labeled the Uniform and Weapon Inspection.

Beaming as the new graduates paraded to the stage, Bass looked on as they shook Moore’s hand in front of assembled family and friends. Her comments at the event leaned into a promise to grow a department that counted 9,700 officers before the pandemic, but due to retirements and slow recruitment, now sits at about 9,250 sworn personnel.

“As your mayor, I want you to know I have committed to ensuring that you have the tools and the resources you need to be effective, and that includes making sure graduations like these have more graduates in those seats,” Bass said. “I have committed to hiring more officers.”

Graduation day at the Police Academy in Elysian Park. (LAMag)

This should not be read as blanket support of the LAPD. On Jan. 11 Bass expressed her “grave concerns” about videos showing encounters with police that led to the deaths of three Black men. In her Jan. 30 letter to the Police Commission supporting a second term for Moore, she cited the need to have all officers undergo mental health training, and limit the number of Taser discharges, among other efforts.

She also said she’d like to alter or yank the ability of officers facing misconduct penalties to appeal their punishment to an all-civilian panel, as this limits the chief’s ability to fire bad cops, and research shows that civilian panels tend to dispense lighter sentences than ones with upper-level LAPD personnel. This may sound like policing gobbledygook but it’s important. It’s also a point of contention, as the powerful police unions will fight to preserve this option.

Indicators elsewhere show Bass is making her own moves: She has hired the traditional deputy mayor for public safety, but also installed a deputy mayor for community safety, a position dealing with matters like participatory governance and homelessness solutions.

That ties back into Bass’ first priority of finding alternatives to the all-too-common instances where a gun-toting cop arrives at a non-violent situation with a person experiencing homelessness and things spin out of control. Bass directly mentioned this at the ceremony this week, nodding to the fact that this isn’t a scenario these grads signed up for; she told them she’s committed to “do everything I can to get the resources in other areas so that you can focus on why you became officers to begin with.”

That may be the one effort everyone in the city gets behind. Beyond that, good luck finding uniformity, including inside City Hall. There, the roster includes players generally supportive of the LAPD, such as Council Public Safety Committee Chair Monica Rodriguez, and new Council reps who have little trust in the police force, like Hugo Soto-Martinez.

Yet the divide may ultimately have less to do with Bass’s policy and more with her being an avatar for hopes many have for the city. During her time in Congress, she authored the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, and though obstinate Republican opposition prevented it from passing, the legislation heralded her as a politician trying to modernize law enforcement at the national level.

But being forward-thinking in this manner does not mean Bass is aligned with the left-leaning set who want to abolish policing as we know it and reimagine our relationship to authority, or who still seethe at the LAPD over the violence they displayed towards citizens at 2020’s social justice protests.

Bass is more complicated and in some surprising ways. Remember how jaws dropped during the mayor’s race when L.A. learned that a pair of guns had been stolen from a lockbox inside her Baldwin Vista home. What? She owns firearms?

It may take years for her policing approach to come into focus and it will involve multiple steps—Bass has announced her first two appointees to the Police Commission, but exactly where she wants to direct the LAPD may not crystalize until it’s time to pick Moore’s successor—likely in 2025 or 2026.

That said, Los Angeles won’t have to wait long to get a more general sense of her priorities. In April, Bass will present her first budget, a true reflection of one’s political values.

There are dozens of city departments that need money, but we can expect a laser focus on law enforcement, and everyone is waiting to see if she directs more dollars to the LAPD or less. This could be her first boiling-point moment, and no matter which way she goes, someone will be angry, and loud.

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