Karen Bass wants nonviolent solutions to crime, homelessness

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski

“It is not solving [homelessness] to criminalize people, even if you are so fed up that you have no more empathy. If you lead to a strategy like that, you might lock somebody up in city jail. They might be there for three days, and they'll be right back on the street,” says U.S. Congresswoman Karen Bass. Credit: Karen Bass For Mayor campaign/Public Domain.

KCRW’s Press Play continues its series of interviews with the leading candidates vying to be the next mayor of Los Angeles. Past conversations include LA City Councilmembers Joe Buscaino and Kevin de León, as well as LA City Attorney Mike Feuer

California Congresswoman Karen Bass represents LA City Council District 37, which includes much of West and South LA. She previously served as the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and as the speaker of the California Assembly. 

She talks about addressing LA’s homelessness crisis as a life-or-death situation, restoring the LAPD’s force, and establishing an office of community safety that would work to prevent and reduce crime. 

The following interview has been edited for clarity. 

KCRW: Let’s begin with the biggest issue facing LA: homelessness. You say you want to house 15,000 unhoused Angelenos in your first year. How exactly will you do that and how will you pay for it? 

Karen Bass: One of the things that is unusual is we're in a time period when the city actually has a lot of resources. One, from the federal government, but also from the state government. So in terms of how things would be paid for, I would definitely look to those resources, especially the big commitment coming from the governor [Gavin Newsom]. But specifically, I believe that we have to have a whole-of-government approach, which means we need the federal, state, county, and city government involved. I would declare a state of emergency on day one like many of the other candidates running, but a local state of emergency is not enough. We have to have an emergency on the federal government's side as well, so we can unlock those resources.

I would streamline building, which means any developer that wants to focus on housing the unhoused, they need to not just go to the front of the line, they need to have their own line in order to do that. We have to build temporary housing. We need to get people off the streets immediately. But I also believe we need a new model in terms of temporary housing, for health reasons alone, aside from safety reasons, and people not feeling safe enough to be in shelters. 

Healthwise, you can't have massive congregate shelters, where there are people on cots. There needs to be individual units. And there are several different ideas around that. We have commercial properties that need to be redesigned for housing. And then we also need to put housing up on the transit corridors. 

So we need to have a whole-of-government approach. We need to view this problem as [the] emergency that it is. We need the leadership that will be decisive, who will stop treating this as a problem to be dealt with slowly. But we have to deal with it like it is life and death, and I believe that's what it is.

Are you saying Mayor Eric Garcetti hasn’t treated homelessness as a life-or-death emergency? 

I think that what has happened in our city and in our county — and part of this is a structural problem with the way the issue is governed right now — it doesn't lend itself to that, which is why we have to change all of this. But the most important thing is that we have to get people housed and off the streets immediately. I think that there's just some things that you don't do outside. Sleeping is one of them.

Now, one thing that I do not support at all? It is not solving it just to move people from one neighborhood to the other. It is not solving it to criminalize people, even if you are so fed up that you have no more empathy. If you lead to a strategy like that, you might lock somebody up in city jail. They might be there for three days, and they'll be right back on the street. So even if you don't care about them anymore, and you're just sick of this and you want it to go away, I'm gonna push for, ‘We have to solve the problem.’ That is the only way to make it go away. You can't just move folks from one block to another. 

Lots of people have tried to solve this problem and have poured in lots of resources and time. They’ve faced bureaucratic impediments in differing jurisdictions, and there’s been no shortage of funds available. LA voters have taxed themselves twice to raise money for homeless housing and it hasn’t been built. Why do you think you are the person who will be able to clear all the bureaucracy away?

I do think, in all fairness, voters did tax themselves a couple of times, and I absolutely supported both of those propositions, but housing is being built. But one of the problems is, for every 200 people that are moved off the street, 215 more move on the street. So we have to have a comprehensive solution. And a key feature to that solution is we have to keep the people that are teetering on homelessness in their homes. We have to get people off the streets right away. But we also have to address the reason why they were unhoused to begin with. And the population of people that are living on our streets is not a monolith. There's different categories of folks that are there for different reasons. And I think that is one of the differences.

Have you spoken with President Joe Biden about declaring a state of emergency and freeing up federal funds?

I have not spoken to the president himself. I have spoken to members of the administration.

And what did they say?

They were very interested in the idea and want to work with me to figure out how to do it. I mean, this is not just LA, right? Granted, I will tell you, this is not a problem that exists everywhere in the country. But for those cities where it does exist, we need to come together and appeal to the administration. 

I've also been reaching out to other mayors. Obviously, I'm not a mayor — yet — but if I have the privilege of serving in that role, how do we establish a united front with the administration to say this is a crisis? It is an emergency, and it needs to be dealt with. This is a man-made earthquake.

How would you counter local neighborhood opposition to building temporary housing or more low-income housing? There is a strong NIMBY [not in my backyard] element in LA. 

There is. But at the same time, the element that doesn't want to see anything happen is the element that is also extremely appalled by the situation and wants to have it go away. I've always believed in working with neighborhoods and coming up with neighborhood-specific solutions. For example, I was in one neighborhood that was bitterly opposed to SB-9, the state law that allows you to take a single-family dwelling and add units onto it. And they were bitterly opposed, but they had another alternative — their alternative was their commercial corridors with a number of dying malls. 

So I think that it is important to create a climate in the city, that this is the problem of all Angelenos. This is not just a problem that's going to be resolved by a mayor, 15 members of the [LA City] Council, or five [county] supervisors. We all have to come together because this is now impacting all of our neighborhoods. And so it's time for everybody to come together to say we, as Angelenos, need to solve this problem.

What do you think has prevented that from happening? 

I think that there's a variety of things that have prevented it from happening. But I would look to the factors that have caused this problem to really explode the way it has. And one of the things that has gotten worse and worse in our city is income inequality. Profound income inequality. Homelessness is a manifestation of that. But this city has become unaffordable. A lot of people can't afford to live here. And I've been here long enough to know that the city was not always unaffordable. So I think it would be wrong to look at this or that and say, ‘This is why it hasn't happened.’ It's been a variety of factors.

You say you don’t want to criminalize homelessness. But if you offer someone a bed and they refuse, what would you do? 

I think that there are instances like that. But talking to the people who do this every day, they say that is an extremely rare situation, that 95% or more of people will accept housing, if you provide them with the housing. But you also have to take into consideration [that] somebody who’s been offered housing may or may not be able to understand you. They might not be able to understand you because they have profound mental illness. So what am I going to do? Because they're hearing voices, and can't communicate with me, I'm going to say that they've refused housing? 

Maybe they weren't capable of accepting housing. Maybe what that person needs is medical treatment, as opposed to a couple of nights in county jail. So that's what worries me about having that front and center as your strategy of what you're going to do to resolve this problem. Because at the end of the day, it might make you feel good for a night that that tent has gone from your block, but it has not solved the problem. And either that same tent or another tent is going to be right back.

Let’s move onto crime and public safety. You want to restore the LAPD to its full complement of officers. The LA City Council has authorized 9700 officers. So that would be about 200 more officers you want to hire?

I would say it depends. It fluctuates between 200 and 400. It depends because that number fluctuates. Part of that number is due to retirement, and part of that number is due to people leaving for a variety of reasons. So it’s fair to say between 200 and 400 officers. 

Two Black Lives Matter leaders you call friends, Patrisse Cullors and Melina Abdullah, are both highly critical of your plan to hire more police officers. They called it a failed vision in a recent essay. How do you respond to their statement, where they’re basically saying you’re pandering to an affluent electorate at the expense of your base? 

The bottom line is that we have differences. We have had an increase in crime. I don't think it's anywhere near what I have seen in the city before. But we have had an increase in crime. You do have neighbors in neighborhoods where people don't feel safe. And you have to address that. That is what my plan does. Now, at the same time, as I believe in, ‘If somebody has committed a crime, you have to hold them accountable,’ I also want to double down or triple down on proven crime prevention strategies. 

I feel, just like the situation we were talking about with agencies that work with the unhoused population, the people that do the crime prevention [and] violence prevention work are never fully resourced. So I believe in doing that. 

The other thing in my plan — I call for starting an office of community safety. And that office of community safety will not be connected to the LAPD. But it will essentially look at non-law enforcement strategies to prevent and reduce crime. Community intervention workers, who tend to be people who were formerly gang-involved, who work with young people who are still gang-involved, to either get them out of gangs or to prevent or intervene when there has been violence. 

I talked to [LAPD] Chief Michel Moore. I've been talking to him off and on for quite a while, because I'm always trying to analyze and understand crime trends to figure out how to intervene and prevent crime. And one of the things that he said is that during the increase in COVID, a number of the gang prevention groups went dormant because of COVID. Everybody was on lockdown. And surprise, surprise, we're now having an increase in gang-involved issues. And so I want to make sure that those groups have the funding. 

So one of the things that I would like to do as mayor is to have either an office that just focuses on raising money, which would be public funds, private funds, etc, to fund organizations that do this type of work. And so it's interesting, but the city at this point in time doesn't have an entity that does that. And I've discovered that LA City leaves a lot of federal money on the table. I would go after those funds. I would make sure that the communities that need this type of investment in this type of work [are] able to have programs that are funded to capacity.

You were the immediate frontrunner when you entered this race. You have the best name recognition. Now you’re neck and neck with Rick Caruso. He's spending a fortune on ads and on mailers, and has gotten a lot more attention and support. He's also won the endorsement of former LAPD Police Chief Bill Bratton and others. How are you going to react? Do you need to change your policies? Move more to the center? Talk more about reducing crime?

No. How about $10 million dollars? That would be nice. If I could spend $2 million a week, we wouldn’t be running neck and neck. In a normal campaign, advertising doesn’t begin this early. Mr. Caruso has the individual wealth that he can do that. And it actually represents a flaw in our system. Because in our democracy, if you are wealthy, you can put whatever amount of money you want into a campaign with virtually no accountability. 

If you are not wealthy, you have to abide by the campaign finance rules, which means that you can't ask for contributions over $1,500, and the paperwork that you have to go through, compliance paperwork to make sure that every dollar is accounted for, actually requires you to have staff that do nothing but that full-time. So more power to him. He has the resources to do that. All the other candidates, including myself, do not.

But there’s a sense of anger among the electorate to fix the city when it comes to crime and homelessness. Some people might feel that you and other government officials haven’t solved the problem, and it might be time for someone else to try. 

Well, absolutely. That is something that happens. That's a good campaign line. Another good campaign line is to run a campaign that is based on fear and that denigrates people who have dedicated their lives to public service. Now, I have not been an elected official for all that long. I didn't run for office for the first time until I was in my 50s. 

The majority of my life has been spent in the private sector. I worked for the public sector one time when I worked at LA County Hospital. My background is in health care, working for hospitals, as well as forming my own nonprofit corporation, which is a business. It's just a business with a different bottom line. And so city voters can decide. 

I think it's a cynical approach, though, to paint people who have dedicated their lives to public service as, ‘Since you spent all of your time trying to solve the problem, and you didn't, let's give it to somebody who has not spent time doing that.’ But that is the way some people lead campaigns. We'll see what happens.

You have said you don’t support the recall against LA County District Attorney George Gascón. But should he keep his job? Do you think he’s doing a good job? 

I do not support the recall. It doesn’t mean that I agree with everything he has done. But what I do believe is that he was duly elected. And if people don’t like the way he is leading, they should make their voices heard. And they should push to see him change. And I think we are seeing that begin now. 

But what do you think about him and his philosophy?

I think that one, he’s been duly elected. I absolutely believe in and have been working for the last 30 years on criminal justice reforms. But I think that some of the reforms that he has called for, in the manner in which he's called for them, I don't agree with. For example, when the DA came in and said no enhancements for anything, period, he neglected to realize that enhancements were needed if there were hate crimes. 

I worried about juveniles getting off, regardless of what they had done. And in particular, being concerned about driving under the influence. I think if a juvenile is caught driving under the influence, to me, that is a cry for help. And I think that there should be strong intervention. Strong intervention doesn't mean locking somebody up. But it certainly means strong intervention because that teenager could go back out on the road and kill people. So those are some examples.

KCRW is a music station and we’ve been asking every candidate what their favorite guilty pleasure song is. What is yours? 

Oh, I don’t know. I love Motown. So how about that? Stevie Wonder.