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What L.A. could do with its $1.8 billion police budget

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It could go to housing, parks, and transportation

A demonstrator holds up his hands in front of the police in Fairfax while protesting the death of George Floyd on Saturday.
AFP via Getty Images

Rubber bullets broke their skin, tear gas burned their eyes and lungs, and batons lodged into their stomachs. Some were run over by a police SUV. Over the past six days, thousands of Angelenos, from Downtown to Fairfax, have marched to end police brutality and were met with more of the same. Mayor Eric Garcetti condemned the slayings of unarmed black men and women at the hands of law enforcement just as he committed $1.86 billion to the Los Angeles Police Department.

The LAPD will receive a $120 million increase in funding under Garcetti’s budget, which was adopted by default Monday after the City Council declined to review it by the June 1 deadline. More city money will be dedicated to policing than any other service this budget year. If you added up the budgets for housing, streets, and transportation, then tripled the sum, it still would not match the city’s LAPD budget.

But for Garcetti to achieve his aims of “righting the wrongs” of more than two centuries of racial injustice, most of that money should instead be deployed toward housing, public health, free transportation, food, and parks, say organizers with the L.A. chapter of Black Lives Matter.

“He’s paying a lot of lip service on Minneapolis,” says Melina Abdullah, a professor of Pan-African studies at California State University, Los Angeles, and an organizer with Black Lives Matter. “It’s really important that he looks in his own backyard.”

On May 26, the day after George Floyd was pinned to the ground by Minneapolis police officers, more than two dozen organizations in Los Angeles, including Black Lives Matter, released a budget proposal—based on a survey of 1,470 Angelenos—to dramatically reshape how L.A. spends money, stripping most of it from LAPD to instead go toward “universal needs” such as social housing. In the days that followed, protests swept across Los Angeles and the nation; “Defund the police” was among the messages displayed on signs and spray-painted boarded-up buildings.

“Changing L.A.’s budget doesn’t dismantle the deep, structural racism in the country, but it’s a start,” says Jacob Woocher, a spokesperson for the coalition.

The mayor says he welcomes conversations about rooting out discrimination, but he also says Los Angeles—which has raised the minimum wage, published a report on the disproportionate impact of homelessness on black people, and is working to create a human-rights commission and office of racial equity—has already made progress.

“This is part of our culture,” he said at a press briefing on Sunday. “For a lot of people who are outraged about Minneapolis, I invite you to be part of these things, not to paint a caricature of a department or a city.”

But the budget, Woocher says, is one of the best places to see where the mayor is actually placing his priorities.

The total budget for the LAPD is $3.14 billion. But that includes pensions, healthcare costs, and other expenses that are fixed and that the mayor and City Council can’t control right now. From their discretionary pool of money, they will allocate $1.86 billion to policing.

That surpasses the $1.2 billion that Garcetti swayed voters to spend on 10,000 apartments for homeless residents over the course of a decade. The mayor has slashed general fund spending for the Housing + Community Investment Department, which oversees the Proposition HHH program, by $1.2 million, and its staffers are among the 16,000 civilian employees who will be furloughed to save money as city revenue has been decimated by the pandemic. (Meanwhile, LAPD officers with college degrees will receive $41 million in bonuses.)

The furloughs will threaten the Housing Department’s ability to complete the 1,025 apartments slated to open by this time next year.

Each of those apartments, built in partnership with private developers, costs the city $133,717 on average to construct. With the police budget, the city could instead help fund the construction of 14,000 additional long-term housing units for homeless Angelenos.

Permanent housing is widely viewed as the solution to L.A.’s seemingly never-ending homeless crisis, and the furloughs put that in jeopardy. But the effects of cutting the department don’t stop there. The housing agency helps tenants facing eviction (it has reported receiving 500 calls every day during the pandemic), oversees a grocery-card program, and is putting together a $100 million fund that will help Angelenos pay their rent.

“Our programs serve as a safety net in these unprecedented times,” department manager Rushmore Cervantes wrote in a memo. “Reducing the working hours will create a deficit in resources available to our constituents in dire need.”

The amount that the LAPD will get from the city next year is more than double the $600 million in federal relief money that the state of California is poised to spend to buy hotels and motels to permanently house 15,000 homeless residents most at risk of dying from COVID-19.

In 2017, black people made up 9 percent of L.A. County’s general population but 40 percent of its homeless population. “That is not based on poverty. That is based on structural and institutional racism,” the then-head of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority told the New York Times last year. He added: “There is probably no more single significant factor than incarceration in terms of elevating somebody’s prospects of homelessness.”

More than half of all LAPD arrests of the homeless population in the first half of 2017 were for nonviolent offenses, including failure to appear, drugs, and petty theft, according to researchers at UCLA. Those researchers also found that while the number of arrests made by the LAPD declined in the general population from 2012 to 2017, they rose at a faster rate among the homeless population.

The City Council had until Monday to change the mayor’s budget before it was de facto adopted. But the budget does not take effect until July 1, and the chair of the council’s budget and finance committee says the budget will be vetted before then “with full participation of the public.” No council members indicated they are ready to defund the LAPD, despite many committing to “fundamental” and “systematic” change during their Tuesday council meeting, the first since the protests erupted.

Abdullah says she will continue to put pressure on the mayor and the City Council to consider the people’s budget.

“White supremacy and racism come in many forms,” says Abdullah. It’s not enough, she says, to speak out against blatant violence or the president. “When we say ‘black lives matter,’ it is specifically state-sanctioned violence, but we also need to look at the ways our City Council and the mayor ignore us or throw crumbs at us.”