Joe Mathews: Police have been looting for years

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LAPD officers boxed-in demonstrators who laid on the street in protest. Photo by Brian Feinzimer/KCRW

The social ills at the root of the protests that have gripped the country over the past week are due in part to funding priorities in our cities and counties. Zocalo Public Square commentator Joe Mathews says much of the blame for that falls at the feet of police unions, which have used their political muscle to demand - and receive - higher salaries and ever-more generous pensions. He says the police raid on local finances needs to change if California is to build a more equitable future. 

Read his column below:

Law enforcement costs are swallowing more of our local budgets.

You should trust California cops when they report looting. Because our state’s most successful looters are the police themselves.

California’s nearly 80,000 sworn officers have spent decades sacking the treasuries of local governments that employ them. Their escalating salaries, benefits, and pensions are swallowing up municipal budgets—and crowding out the other services, from libraries to summer programs. 

The police have turned this fiscal dominance into unchecked political power. Police unions, fueled by dues from high-salaries officers, make the campaign contributions that determine local elections. So city council members rarely curb the pay or power of the police who installed them in office. In many California places, the city doesn’t oversee the police; the police oversee the city.

This upside-down government structure deserves more attention in our current crisis—because it helps answer a crucial question: Why does racist and deadly police behavior keep happening? The proper response to that query starts not with Twitter-spread conspiracy theories about protestors on our streets, but rather with recognizing that police have taken over our city halls.  

Police dominance of municipal budgets is an American problem, but it’s extreme in California. Our 120,000 full-time law enforcement officers—police, sheriffs, prison guards—are the nation’s highest paid. California consistently ranks among the state leaders in police spending ($414 per resident, compared to a national average of $354).

The peculiarities of California governance have long accentuated police power, as well as its costs. While local budgets were limited by Prop 13 and other tax limits, the “maintenance of effort” provisions in the state constitution—via Proposition 172, approved in 1993—required local governments to keep up spending on public safety. 

Then, 20 years ago, the full-scale police looting of municipal budgets began, with retirement enhancements allowing officers to retire at age 50 and claim huge pensions.  These pension boosts were both retroactive and permanent, and included easily-abused rules that allowed cops to spike their pensions astronomically. Current LAPD Chief Michel Moore briefly retired and exploited one pension provision to pocket $1.27 million.

The escalating police pensions, along with lucrative disability benefits and costly retiree health coverage, crushed city budgets. They also contribute to the ironies of the current crisis.

One irony is that today’s young protestors will spend decades paying the unaffordable retirements of the cops who are using tear gas and rubber bullets against them. Another irony is that massive increases in police budgets haven’t produced more police. Most cities have fewer sworn officers than they did in 2008. That’s why police departments are now struggling to muster personnel to protect property from vandalism and looting. 

To be fair, California police are neither irredeemable nor unaware. Police collaborated with critics to negotiate pioneering state legislation last year that limits police use of force. Some cities, notably Richmond, have transformed police-community relations. 

The LAPD, once a citadel of abuse and paramilitary action, is now a national model of community responsiveness and diversity, with 2/3 of officers now hailing from ethnic or racial minorities. Watching protests in the Fairfax district, I was struck that the protestors were more male and whiter than the cops. 

But police departments have faced little pressure to surrender their local fiscal and political power—until now. Black Live Matters successfully targeted Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s initial budget proposal, which cut virtually every program except the LAPD, which got a 7 percent increase. After activists launched a “People’s Budget campaign

Police dominance of municipal budgets is an American problem, but it’s extreme in California. Our 120,000 full-time law enforcement officers—police, sheriffs, prison guards—are the nation’s highest paid. California consistently ranks among the state leaders in police spending ($414 per resident, compared to a national average of $354).

The peculiarities of California governance have long accentuated police power, as well as its costs. While local budgets were limited by Prop 13 and other tax limits, the “maintenance of effort” provisions in the state constitution—via Proposition 172, approved in 1993—required local governments to keep up spending on public safety. 

Then, 20 years ago, the full-scale police looting of municipal budgets began, with retirement enhancements allowing officers to retire at age 50 and claim huge pensions.  These pension boosts were both retroactive and permanent, and included easily-abused rules that allowed cops to spike their pensions astronomically. Current LAPD Chief Michel Moore briefly retired and exploited one pension provision to pocket $1.27 million.

The escalating police pensions, along with lucrative disability benefits and costly retiree health coverage, crushed city budgets. They also contribute to the ironies of the current crisis.

One irony is that today’s young protestors will spend decades paying the unaffordable retirements of the cops who are using tear gas and rubber bullets against them. Another irony is that massive increases in police budgets haven’t produced more police. Most cities have fewer sworn officers than they did in 2008. That’s why police departments are now struggling to muster personnel to protect property from vandalism and looting. 

To be fair, California police are neither irredeemable nor unaware. Police collaborated with critics to negotiate pioneering state legislation last year that limits police use of force. Some cities, notably Richmond, have transformed police-community relations. 

The LAPD, once a citadel of abuse and paramilitary action, is now a national model of community responsiveness and diversity, with 2/3 of officers now hailing from ethnic or racial minorities. Watching protests in the Fairfax district, I was struck that the protestors were more male and whiter than the cops. 

But police departments have faced little pressure to surrender their local fiscal and political power—until now. Black Live Matters successfully targeted Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s initial budget proposal, which cut virtually every program except the LAPD, which got a 7 percent increase. After activists launched a “People’s Budget campaign” to replace police spending with money for the homeless and renters, Garcetti said he would trim the police budget instead. Nationally, some activists even want to end police departments altogether. 

That’s unlikely to happen, but California’s system of local government must change to stop police dominance of our cities. This means empowering citizens to challenge police power in city hall, and forcing police to work under neighborhood service departments with a broader sense of community needs. 

But first, let’s stop the looting. 

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.

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