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Crime dropped to historic lows as police spending swelled to historic highs. Now what?

Wafts of stinging tear gas still hung in the air. Officers hoisted rifles, tracking unarmed protesters in the cross-hairs. “Less lethal! Less lethal!” officers shouted as they gave chase. “Clear the area!”

C.J. Montano, a music student at the Los Angeles Recording School, had already been tear-gassed and hit in the hip and stomach by sponge grenades and rubber bullets that chaotic afternoon of May 30, according to his claim against the city of Los Angeles. People had flooded the streets in the Fairfax District to demand changes to police tactics after the death of George Floyd, and some hurled rocks and bottles at the skirmish line of officers.

Pandemonium ensued. Montano strode into the street, hoping to calm things down. Body camera footage shows Montano facing the officers, hands in the air. Officers fired, striking him directly in the head. Pain radiated through his skull and he crumpled to the ground, bleeding. He lost vision in his left eye, felt ringing in his ears and was whisked away by fellow protesters, then hospitalized for four days.

Barely a month later, the Los Angeles City Council responded to demands for change by doing something that was politically unthinkable just a few months earlier: It sliced $150 million from the venerable Los Angeles Police Department budget.

That’s just a 5% drop in the LAPD’s $3 billion bucket, but it illustrates how the once-sacrosanct pot of money for policing — which could go up, but never down, in the overwhelming majority of California cities — was suddenly and strikingly in play.

Body camera footage shows CJ Montano facing the officers in riot gear, hands up in the air. Officers fired, striking him directly in the head. (Screengrab via LAPD video)

A poll from UC Berkeley’s Institute for Governmental Studies finds “large and broad-based support” for police reform in California, with 80% of registered voters favoring laws to make it easier to prosecute police officers who use excessive force; 78% favoring a ban on police use of choke holds and strangleholds; 70% saying people should be able to sue officers for gross misconduct and excessive use of force, even if that makes police work more difficult; and 61% wanting to reduce the bargaining rights of police unions, which have been seen as powerful obstacles to reform.

“While elected officials have, in the past, resisted calls for police reform, the wide margins now in favor that extend across racial and geographic lines suggest that the politics of this issue have shifted substantially,” said Eric Schickler, IGS co-director at Berkeley, in a statement.

The speed of this shift is dizzying to Gregory Chris Brown, associate professor of criminal justice at Cal State Fullerton.

“This is very much a threat to law enforcement as it currently exists,” Brown said. “Things are going to change. They have to change.”

Spending increases

A Southern California News Group analysis found that city spending on policing has grown in raw dollars and as a portion of overall city spending over the past 16 years, even as crime rates dropped to historic lows.

After adjusting for inflation, the analysis found that:

  • Statewide, city operating expenditures on policing jumped 37% from 2003 to 2018, to $12.8 billion, while overall city spending increased just 27 percent.
  • Cities devoted one-quarter of their operating budgets to policing in 2003, but that swelled to 34% by 2018, the most recent year available for all cities.
  • The extra money didn’t buy a tremendous expansion in the officer ranks. Staffing rose less than 3% over those years, from 37,204 to 38,314.
  • The ranks are spread thinner. There were 3.67 officers per 1,000 residents in 2003. That dropped to 2.02 in 2018.
  • As cities pumped more money into policing, crime in California fell. Violent crime dropped 13.6% from 2003 to 2016 (to 176,866), while property crimes plunged 22.2% (to 940,998).

SCNG used data from the California state controller, California Department of Justice and, where historic data is compiled by Michael Coleman, a principal fiscal policy adviser to the California Society of Municipal Finance Officers and the League of California Cities.

“I was surprised to see how big a percentage police were of total budgets,” said Brown of CSUF. “There’s been a lot of research on the public perception of crime. The news cycle, around the clock, is heavy with mass shootings and violent and serious crime — and, as a result, people believe the crime rate is increasing, even though the opposite is true. Police unions take advantage of that. What elected official is going to go against a strong police union saying, ‘We need more money for law enforcement’?”

Cause and effect

Police, however, argue that there’s a clear cause-and-effect relationship between increased funding and decreasing crime.

“I absolutely believe the increased spending on policing has an effect on lower crime rates,” said Edgar Hampton, president of the Anaheim Police Association, by email.

“If you look at cities that started to really tackle the issue of crime suppression instead of just a reactionary approach, you will see the reduction. You will also see the increase in crime (New York, Chicago and Baltimore, for examples) when you stop those suppression efforts. …

“I would ask you if you see the same results in the investment in the public education system? I would put the successes of the police and improvements made by all of the agencies in the state up against the tests scores and graduation rates of the public school system any day.”

Others, however, see the relationship as more nuanced.

“I don’t think spending on law enforcement and criminal justice are unrelated to crime rates, but it’s important to acknowledge that there are many other factors at work here as well,” said Magnus Lofstrom, policy director of criminal justice and senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.

Those include the health of the economy, the transience of the population policed, its racial and ethnic makeup, composition by age and gender, educational levels and prevalent family structures, according to the FBI and others.

“If we’re going to make real progress in reducing racial disparities, we have to look at those broader issues,” Lofstrom said.

Demonstrators protest in front of Los Angeles City Hall on June 6, 2020, in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd . (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

Historic crossroads

Budgets are simply policy statements with numbers rather than words. They speak clearly about priorities, and public safety has long topped the list for local governments.

But the death of George Floyd, a Black man, under the knee of a White police officer — and the civil unrest it unleashed — delivered a moment of reckoning. It was underscored on Aug. 23 when police in Wisconsin shot Jacob Blake in the back in front of his three children. Blake  also is Black.

Elected officials suddenly are grappling with how to make policing more fair, more effective and, perhaps, less expensive, so money might be directed to other urgent needs.

“I can say with a pretty high level of confidence that it’s egregious the amount that we spend on policing nationwide,” said Pedram Esfandiary, an attorney with Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman who represents Montano and others injured by police in the unrest.

“The perception is that police equal safety. The big question that’s missed is, for who? For wealthy white folks, maybe. For disenfranchised folks, for people of color, it’s not the same story.”

For decades, reformers have urged officials to spend less on policing and more on education, after-school programs, health care and affordable housing. Before Floyd’s death, their voices were considered extreme. Now, they’ve moved to center stage. Social movements like #DefundthePolice amplify the call — and worry those on the Thin Blue Line.

“Increased attention on policing is not necessarily a bad thing, but there’s been hyper-criticism of the profession in general,” said Dustin DeRollo, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Protective League. “In L.A., we had council members in the weeks prior championing ‘more police officers in the neighborhoods, more patrols,’ saying, ‘Fantastic job!’ Then, on the turn of a dime, they vilify police officers, blame them for murder.”

After a confrontation, LAPD pulls back during a protest on Vine Street in Hollywood in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd on June 2, 2020. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Officers are very concerned with “potentially catastrophic” budget decisions that could increase crime and response times.

“What’s happening right now is that the budget’s not being developed to reach a desired set of outcomes — it’s being set based on emotions,” DeRollo said. “Some city leaders wanted to cut from a punitive standpoint, to punish the LAPD for things that happened, what, 20 or 30 years ago? That doesn’t serve our residents at all. Budgeting by hashtag is not the answer.”

New approaches?

In New York City, in Chicago, in Brazil, there’s a phenomenon called “participatory budgeting.” Officials set aside public funds and allow community members to hash out priorities and decide how to spend the money.

In the U.S., participatory budgeting is usually done with small pots of discretionary money — but there’s no reason it couldn’t be done on a broader scale, said David Schleifer, vice president and research director with Public Agenda, a nonpartisan, nonprofit public engagement organization.

“From a public opinion research standpoint, my sense is that activists have been asking these questions about shifting money from police for a long time, but the general public is encountering these questions for the first time,” he said. “The question is going to be whether and how people’s opinions on these issues evolve over time.”

Mayor Eric Garcetti joins pastors and marchers outside LAPD headquarters during a demonstration demanding justice for George Floyd on Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

Timothy T. Williams Jr., a retired LAPD detective, author of “A Deep Dive: An Expert Analysis on Police Procedure, Use of Force and Wrongful Convictions” and expert consultant, fears people are focusing on the wrong things.

“This notion of ‘defunding,’ that’s an emotional approach to a systemic problem that’s older than me and you combined,” Williams said. “When you take $150 million away from an organization, then what are you going to do? You haven’t figured that out yet, have you?

“What you need to talk about is reform,” Williams said. “You have to take emotion out of the equation and sit down and develop a coherent approach to the problem — a systemic problem that spans the criminal justice system and beyond.”

Modern policing, he said, is complicated by the tension between “warrior” and “protector.” “There are four branches of service if you want military,” Williams said. As a police officer, he said, “Your mission is to protect and to serve.”

Change must go deep, from the type of people recruited to the training provided to supervision and executive leadership. “All this has to change. It’s a hard job, but we can do it. It’s not going to happen in one year — it’s five or 10. Have you ever seen a cruise ship doing a U-turn?”

And Williams doesn’t accept the notion that police unions will never allow this kind of change. “The unions are as powerful as you let them be,” he said. “It’s not them versus us any more. It’s us. It’s all of us.”

C.J. Montano in the hospital after getting shot in the head by a rubber bullet. (Montano claim against City of Los Angeles)

Lawsuit filed

On Aug. 12, Montano, the music student who was struck in the head with his hands up, filed suit against the city and county in Los Angeles Superior Court. The suit decries “the militarized culture” of the LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which “prioritize violence over peaceful de-escalation.”

Montano, 24, has suffered a brain bleed with risk of seizures and serious infection, the suit says. He had to use a cane to keep his balance. More than two months later, he still suffers hearing loss, recurrent dizziness, nausea and mental confusion.

Payouts on suits like this aren’t counted in the police budgets now in play.

“I urge the electorate, and the people who are doing this work, to not resort to what’s always comfortable or what’s been done before,” said Esfandiary, one of Montano’s attorneys. “What’s been done before is not working, clearly.”

Major changes may indeed be afoot.

“I can’t say for certain what the future of law enforcement is,” said Hampton of the Anaheim Police Association. “I do know this: Recent polls don’t show a large amount of support for defunding or abolishing the police, and until that happens I am thankful to the men and women out there actually doing the work. And I am thankful those men and women will continue doing the work because when a critical incident or emergency occurs, there has to be someone there to run toward it and not run away from it.”

Source: Orange County Register

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