Mayor Garcetti on LAPD accountability and budget, ensuring protestors see change

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For more than a week, thousands of Angelenos have packed the streets to protest police violence, racial injustice, and the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless other African Americans. Some police have clashed with peaceful protestors, using rubber bullets and batons against them. It’s all against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti speaks with Greater LA about the recent protests and clashes with police, plus the calls to cut funding from the LAPD.

KCRW: What’s your take on how the LAPD has handled the protests?  

Eric Garcetti: “It's difficult to have one single brush because everybody's experience is their experience. So any harsh police tactics that we saw have no place in Los Angeles. And they tarnish … the professionalism and care that thousands of officers show every day. 

Luckily, not because we're a better city, but because we've gone through these tough moments in the past, we have a civilian Police Commission Inspector General who's reviewing footage, ensuring a full investigation of any incidents ... that are using excessive use of force, which could lead to officer discipline or removal. 

I always caution people — every incident has a larger context. Our officers must keep the peace but without violence, whenever necessary and whenever possible. 

This is a really transformative moment for our city. I've been really pleased. … Protests this week have been just so powerful, so peaceful. We need to focus on tearing down structural racism, both in our communities and our government institutions. The police need to be a part of that. But also we need to make sure that we widen that out beyond just what we see in policing, because there are larger issues at stake.”

How are you ensuring that police are held accountable for using rubber bullets and batons on protestors?

“We say first and foremost, harsh police tactics have no place in Los Angeles. And then secondly, where there's [sic] any complaints, and I encourage folks who have been the victim of anything to make sure that gets reported to our inspector general. 

…You can have 200,000 good interactions between police officers and protesters. But if you have 200 that are bad, that are filmed, that are real, that people feel, those have to be addressed. They can't just be swept under the carpet. It is a part of what this healing moment has to be about. 

And more than that, forget this moment of just protest. If we don't have that all the time, we don't have accountable policing. And to me, that is a cornerstone of good constitutional policing, of community-based policing. And I hope that there's lessons learned. 

I know when things were happening in Fairfax, I was with the chief of police. We saw it on TV. And there's [sic] some dangerous situations. The night before, I think officers had taken a lot of bottles and bricks, and one had nearly died with a fractured skull. But an overreaction in the face of that is not always the best reaction. 

And we have to make sure that people can protest, and that we protect those rights. And I'm very proud that LAPD for years has marched alongside the Women's March, has been able to help people in 2017 when the president was sworn in, and we had night after night after night of protest — and do that peacefully. But that is never an excuse for excessive force.”

The Minneapolis City Council just voted to begin the process of dismantling its city’s police department. There are calls like that for the LAPD. Until recently, you supported increasing LAPD funding, even though the city's revenue is way down. Now you're saying you'd like to take maybe $150 million out of the budget and spread it to other programs. Why the change of heart?

“We either meet this moment or we miss this moment, full stop. … It's not just in [the] police department. We kept all of our programs for the entire city in place. … There was a numerical raise in PD to meet the cost of living. But there was [sic] functional cuts in the police department, even in the earlier budget. 

… At this moment, if we don't see our budgets as moral documents and a reflection of our values ... what are we doing to address the fact that Black Americans start so far behind the starting line in our economy and our health? 

Certainly when it comes to the experience they have with policing across America [and] the criminal justice system, you're more likely to be in jail, you're more likely to be arrested. 

You're more likely to die of COVID-19, you're more likely to be homeless, you're more likely to be undereducated or underemployed if you're Black in America. 

So to me, it was kind of crystal clear. And by the way, it wasn't an awakening. The largest growth in our budget over the last seven years have been around the intervention youth programs, our fight against homelessness, things that disproportionately affect not just Black Americans, but also other communities of color. And I think that's the right thing to do. 

So a narrative that somehow the police department has grown and these other things have not couldn't be further from the truth. We had $12 million for homelessness a few years ago. And now we're going to be this year at $696 million. 

We stepped up in the midst of a COVID-19 crisis to make sure we weren't just trying to save lives, but erasing that gap that had Black Angelenos dying at twice the rate of white Angelenos, something we've closed by halfway already due to the public testing centers that we had. 

So this can't just be about one piece of the budget. And you know, we need to have public safety and think, ‘What are we putting on the shoulders of our officers that they don't deserve to have on their shoulders?’ They can't be the answer to everything having to do with homelessness and everything having to do with mental health. They can't have the answers to every social ill. 

And yet I think across America — and Los Angeles, while in many ways has been more progressive than others, still fits into this criticism, we've just kind of thrown it all into what usually is the biggest department, asked police officers to answer those calls … of getting people out of tough situations, responding to violence in homes, and sex trafficking, and rapes, and things like that. But I think we've probably put too much on their shoulders. 

And it's time for us to collectively think about not just police budgets, but our entire budgets, where we're sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars at the county level, at the state level. Our federal government giving tax breaks to the wealthiest Americans right now instead of investing that in places is where you can't get a loan to start a business if you're Black. Those are the conversations I hope that this sparks … and it moves other cities and levels of government to start doing the right things, to not just saying we're against racism, but we're going to actively put our money where our mouths are.”

You said we have to meet this moment. Why did it take this moment to draw so much attention to it?

“I think the history of America is always when people take to the streets, and social movements demand more, demand an acceleration, demand this moment, that either you turn your face away from that or you listen and you do more. That's what a democracy is all about. 

Why has it always taken moments of crisis for us to do better? Depression, war, segregation? I don't have those answers of why these things exist. They don't just come from government. They come from us collectively. 

So if we don't all own this moment, say in our workplace, what we're going to give up, who we're going to hire, who we give the raise to, who we give that loan to … how we educate, whether we step up when there's [sic] things on the ballot, like measure EE last year, which went down with not even 50% of vote, which would have given Black and brown children much more of a start in our public schools.

I think it's a collective moment. But why this moment? Because of the trauma of it.

… The fact that if you're living in Watts, you have 12 less years of your life statistically than if you are [sic] born and grew up in Bel Air … that's not something that just comes out of a government program. That comes out of where we have prioritized as a society, and and how we spend our public monies [sic]. 

But I can reassure you, it did not start two weeks ago, this movement.

For instance, take our gang reduction youth development programs and expand them by 50%, that was a victory that the community, City Hall and others can claim from seven years ago.

… People said we need to invest in homelessness, and we passed not just one but two measures, that happened four or five years ago. 

… Those of us who spoke out against tax cuts for the rich, who want to have health care for everybody or make college free … we've made community college free together with our community college district, and boosted in one year by 46% the number of kids from LAUSD going to college through our community colleges. 

So this is part of an ongoing struggle. What this moment demands is even more that we stretch beyond maybe what we think our grasp is ... and go further as a city as a state and as a nation.”

The people who protested in front of your house several times over the past week, are they not seeing the implementations of these ideas that you're talking about? Many people are still saying you're not listening. What can you do to ensure that people receive the change that they're screaming for?

“You absolutely have to let people know that a) they're being heard, b) let them know the victories, which are not a list of things that politicians did on their own. They usually were in response to community organizing. And the tough, difficult work is always about reallocating resources, and raising the funds, and pushing things forward, reducing the number of deaths at the hands of police officers, which were 21 just a few years ago, down to 11 in LA. … We can go through each one of them and see which ones still are unacceptable, but those are hard-won victories from activists.

I hope this moment invites people from the street into the process too because the momentum is clearly with change. This is a moment I've been waiting for my whole life too.

… I was talking with a friend who said, ‘Hey, were you there when we needed to have that town hall to open up a homeless shelter? Were you there when measure EE was on the ballot last year, which would have had a lasting permanent change on our education system? Will you be there this fall when Schools and Communities First, which will change what Prop 13 did to the state? Will we organize around that because that affects Black communities first and foremost, and other poor and communities of color? Will we do those things together?’ 

Or will it be, ‘Hey, you know, the only emotion I have is the rage of this moment, and I don't want to learn how budget works. I don't want to figure out. I want to have demand of just burn the thing down.’ 

We know that the change has to come when all of us find the common ground now and say, ‘Yes, more than ever before, it is time to accelerate justice, accelerate a racial equity lens, abolish Proposition 209 (which may be on the ballot this fall).’ 

And get engaged and involved in those things, that for the young kid being born today, will have a lasting effect on her life beyond the criminal justice issues, which are so critical at this moment. It has to be much bigger than that if this moment is going to mean something.”

If the City Council comes to you and says, ‘We want to defund the police department, we want to dismantle it and find another way of public safety,’ what do you say to them?

“Say that Los Angeles has done a lot of dismantling, and has a lot of work still to do. I'm very curious to watch and to understand what that means in places. I think that for me, the most important thing is models that work. There is actually common ground. 

I don't know if you know the Community Safety Partnership, which was something that came out of community organizing and a demand for a different policing model. It started in our public housing developments, then has moved now under our leadership into neighborhoods for the first time. And instead of police officers being in a place for two years and then cycling out, the stay for five years. And knocking on doors is a big part of what they do, like departments like Camden, New Jersey … where they mentor and engage and build relationships, not just respond to calls. I want to see that expanded. 

We need public safety, but we have to understand what the police department is really good at, and where we still need to keep growing, and those things that maybe shouldn't be under the responsibility of a police department. So I think that's the way we should go about rebuilding from this moment, and building on this moment. 

In other places where it's so broken, they have to start from scratch. I respect that. But I think there's been too many people with too much blood, sweat, and tears in the changes that we brought about in Los Angeles — to full scale abandon that. 

And by the way, it would have a huge impact in our city tomorrow, when there is a young girl caught in sex trafficking, when there is somebody who's waiting for their rape kit to be processed (which used to be years, and now is done in weeks). 

You know, these things have impacts on public safety, but it doesn't have to be an either/or. It doesn't have to be ‘tear it all down or support the status quo.’

We have to be very impatient. We have to be very demanding in this moment. And we have to be very smart. And I think a lot of that is looking at where we put resources, figuring out a better way to do it, and looking at what works in a way that builds trust. Nobody should be traumatized by their police force and vice versa. People should be able to depend on a police force to be there when they need them. 

And then the third thing is we need to look at is what builds safety that has nothing to do with policing? Youth programs, health indicators, homelessness, educational systems. If we say that Black lives matter, and that black bodies are a matter, if we humanize this moment, it is brought on, and continuously policing is a piece of this. 

But if that is the only focus of this, we will miss this moment. We will miss that this moment is about — that there's $17,000 per Black household in America … and $171,000 in every white household. There's just no fair start to begin with. And to me, that's as important work for all of us to do, including myself, in the next couple months. If we're going to create community wealth and opportunity, and erase racism, it has to be material as well as procedural."

Many people say they don't feel safer when the cops show up. That needs to be addressed.

“No question. And that comes from accountability, including during these protests. It comes from the ongoing work we do to make sure that knocking on the door is as important as answering a 911 call, and that we root out any culture and misconduct. 

I saw videos recently where we had police officers saying things that have no place in this department right now. But vice versa too, it means recruiting people from our community to become police officers. That means continuing to add the reforms. Like we said, the eight can't wait

The national campaigns that have helped us reduce the number of fatal police shootings. … These things actually save lives. And those feelings are things that I think our police department leadership and officers need to hear. 

And vice versa, we need to open up the spaces for the mental health of our officers, and the support of our officers, and the training of our officers, and the recruitment of our officers, and the rooting out of or bad officers and not passing them on in the state, and having independent prosecutions when people do break the laws, officers. Those are all a piece of us all feeling safer, from our officers to the people that they serve.”

KCRW's Greater LA: What justice and police brutality look like to BLM organizer Melina Abdullah

—Written by Amy Ta, produced by Christian Bordal