Progressive Council Rep. Hugo Soto-Martinez vs. LAPD Officers Union: Pass the Popcorn

Cityside Column: The District 13 rookie could learn some lessons from round one of what looks to be a long fight with the pugilistic Police Protective League
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Tuesday was Valentine’s Day, and while I’m not privy to the contents of the mailbox in District 13 Councilmember Hugo Soto-Martinez’s East Hollywood apartment building, I’d wager a sizable amount of money that there was not a heart-filled “Be Mine” card from the Los Angeles Police Protective League. Similarly, I’d guess that the freshman rep declined to send a balloon bouquet to the police union’s Eighth Street offices.

Social media swipes from one to the other are more likely, on Feb. 14 or any other day.

The battle between Soto-Martinez and the union representing thousands of rank-and-file LAPD officers has quickly emerged as one of the most barbed disputes in the city. At a time when Mayor Karen Bass is aiming for locked arms, the councilmember and the union are eyeballing each other from across the L.A. version of the Continental Divide. And if that existed, it would probably be the fence surrounding Echo Park Lake.

This is intriguing. Not only because of the warring parties but for who each represents in a city that grows further divided, with every election or protest. In his skepticism of the police, Soto-Martinez stands afront a vocal crowd of left-leaning constituents who’d be happy to see traditional law enforcement put out to pasture and replaced by more effective and less lethal safety and security. The LAPPL, meanwhile, carries the support of a large and powerful, if not nearly as loud, contingent of Angelenos who bristle at the idea of defunding the police—many of them want consistency in everything from cops on the beat to those who make long-term commitments to low-income neighborhoods via the department’s Community Safety Partnership Bureau.

It’s all so much bigger than the Lexus snafu that brought on this current moment. It is also a matter made worse by how Soto-Martinez responded to the situation and seems to have failed to recognize that, when you make the political big leagues, what you do can resonate later, especially when it concerns a pugilistic union.

The Lexus snafu: In case you didn’t know, the vehicle in question belonged to David Mai, a District 13 staffer who on Feb. 1 made the boneheaded decision to call the police and ask them to watch over the car after it broke down at the council rep’s Echo Park field office. As LAMag reported that week, a Rampart officer snapped a photo of a police computer dispatch screen that incorrectly stated it was a vehicle “belonging to a councilmember.” The pic jumped to social media and the story ignited: Defund the Police Councilman Asks Cops to Watch His Car.

Soto-Martinez had made tearing apart the fabric of the LAPD a cornerstone of his successful campaign against incumbent Mitch O’Farrell. While claiming he wants to abolish the police force misses the nuance of his stance, Soto-Martinez isn’t buying tickets to the Policeman’s Ball. His campaign website stated, “The LAPD has led the charge toward a system of policing based on racist, arbitrary algorithms that uphold the bigotry of the past while stripping away privacy for the future.”

That approach may win votes. But it won’t help when trying to woo anyone across the aisle.

His doubt of the police continued after the election. Soto-Martinez sits on the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, and in January, the panel considered accepting the donation of a $278,000 robot dog to be deployed in situations where LAPD brass feel it’s unsafe to send an officer. Soto-Martinez tweeted even before the meeting that he would vote no, and during the session, he made clear his feelings.

“Over the history of the LAPD there have always been instances of a program starting in one part of the department and then it just seems to flow into other parts,” he said, then later added, “There’s just no trust that LAPD will do the right thing, you know?”

It is against this backdrop that the LAPPL pounced. Jeretta Sandoz, a sergeant and union vice president, made the rounds after the Lexus story broke, savaging Soto-Martinez and accusing him of hypocrisy. “Anyone can call and ask for help,” she told Fox 11 News. “But when you are anti-police, abolish the police, we don’t need the police, then why are you calling for help?”

Was this somewhat disingenuous considering that it was a staffer, and not the Prius-driving councilmember, who made the call? Of course. But as referenced above, actions have consequences, and after months of Soto-Martinez criticizing the department, the union, never known for subtlety, responded. 

It didn’t help that Soto-Martinez’s initial response was watery, with a statement from his communications staff saying the councilmember was “very upset” and that the call to the cops didn’t reflect his values of “transparency, responsible governance and being accountable to the community that elected him.”

That might be true. Yet it sounds like the same weak deflection of a long-serving politician. He’d have been better off going immediately on TV and speaking to each reporter who called, saying something firm, like, “One of my staffers messed up but I’m the councilmember and I take full responsibility. I won’t fire him because we all deserve a second chance, but this is under my watch. As punishment, he will be made to watch Babylon.”

Okay, maybe the last part doesn’t happen, but Soto-Martinez could have played this hand much better. That, by the way, also goes for his pledge to remove the fence surrounding Echo Park Lake. The message was muddled because the primary things people want to know are: when, specifically, will the fence be gone and will tent encampments be allowed there in the future? The answers to both are unclear, and his comment to a Spectrum journalist, that the fate of tents depends on a city department, doesn’t provide the decisive, “I’ve-got-this” leadership that people want from their rep.

As I wrote last month, running for City Council is completely different than serving one’s constituents. The job is difficult. It carries a learning curve. And many new Council members err in thinking that shouting their beliefs or being active on Twitter is what matters. Soto-Martinez recently showed followers how he orders takeout beef shawarma from a Hollywood restaurant.

Ultimately though, success depends on what you bring to, and do for, voters. Citywide policy matters, but even more important is how you serve every constituent, whether they voted for you or not. Being in office is also about how well you play with others, including entrenched powers such as the Police Protective League. This is just the opener, however. The union and Soto-Martinez will have each other to kick around for at least the next few years. Get ready.

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