The Hang Out Do Good advocacy group recently concluded a series of “Looking Local” conversations with candidates currently running for local offices including Los Angeles Mayor, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, LA County Sheriff, Los Angeles City Attorney, and several Los Angeles City Council seats. The conversations took place on Sunday afternoons, via Zoom, and were open to the public. This conversation with Steve Johnson, one of five candidates who will be on the ballot to represent Los Angeles City Council District 13, took place on Sunday, May 22. Johnson is a former Air Force captain who is now a sergeant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. His campaign focuses on homelessness, public safety, and “promoting a culture of ethics that ends corruption in leadership.” The conversation was structured as a Q&A with HODG hosts, and covered the following topics:
Johnson, a former Air Force captain who is now a sergeant in the LA County Sheriff’s Department (and loves his job), lives in Atwater Village with his husband. He described himself as “a public servant, not a career politician,” and said he’s running for office because we have a need for ethical leadership at City Hall. He also said that as a police officer, he’s dealt with thousands of homeless individuals (more than any other candidate in this race), and knows the way to deal with our homeless crisis is to be compassionate but have the will to do the right thing, such as getting people to mental health and “sobering” facilities.
What would you do differently to address the homeless crisis – where would you put people, and how would you get more services from the LA County Board of Supervisors?
Johnson said a significant portion of homeless individuals don’t want the kinds of housing we think they’d want – such as big, new, expensive apartment buildings (and he said that building those, for what they cost in comparison to other housing options, is “crazy town”). Also, he said, people don’t want shelter that has too many restrictions, such as curfews, and no-pet and no-contraband rules. So what we need are more safe camping facilities, tiny homes, container homes, “industrialized tents,” and similar faster, less expensive options that allow people more freedom while waiting for permanent housing. Johnson also said that money isn’t the issue, and we can fund these options tomorrow…while trying to building large new buildings would take 30-35 years to make a dent in the problem.
Johnson said there are at least five locations in CD 13 that we can use for immediate housing (such as a vacant lot on North Larchmont), and the Valley has large plots of land where we can build tiny homes…so it’s not controversial or unethical to move people from the streets to better placements, which also helps us keep track of them while trying to deliver services. And it’s faster and easier than constructing a “hard building,” he said.
How would you work with the Supervisors to get more services from the County?
Johnson said that during the pandemic, many County workers contracted COVID, so he had to fill in working the streets. He said the work taught him that the City Council needs to do a better job of providing services in conjunction with LA County…and mayoral candidate Karen Bass has hit the nail on the head when she says we need to pay our clinicians more, because their work is dangerous and stressful. Right now, Johnson said, the city and county are working independently, so we need a homelessness “czar,” to align the two entities and get the city and county working together, with the city providing spaces for people, and the county providing health and mental health services.
How would you create more emergency and supportive housing in the 13th District when residents often say, “Not here!”
Johnson agreed that this is a problem, and that people are being honest and authentic when they say they’ve lived in their neighborhood for 30 years and don’t want to see a safe camping site across the street from their home, which is not what they signed up for when they bought their homes. At the same time, however, he said we do need to help the homeless residents in our neighborhoods, and we can’t just send them elsewhere. Johnson said he used to patrol the Red Line corridor, and he believes we should densify the areas along major transit corridors (and that people would support mixed income housing near transit)…in addition to using vacant lots throughout the city, as previously described.
Do you support “gentle diversity” everywhere we can put it?
Johson said, yes, but the most urgent thing is to fix our own backyards first, and to make CD 13 a role model for how to handle housing.
What does public safety look like to you and how can we get there?
Johnson said that because he’s a police officer, he believes he’s the right candidate to help build bridges between the community and law enforcement. He acknowledged that this year, the Greater Wilshire and Silverlake communities have been hit hard by crime – with home invasions, break-ins, and more. He also said that when you cut the LAPD budget by $200 million, there will be an effect. In this case, he said, two of the first things cut were gang and burglary task forces, and now we’re seeing increases in those kinds of crimes. Johnson said he gets sick to his stomach when he sees reports of crimes like the recent murder at a La Brea furniture store, and the robbery of a Hancock Park mom in her own driveway with her baby. He said he would like to hire more police officers, have more than one LAPD car dedicated to the Larchmont area, and return to more robust community policing. “As community members, you are police officers,” he said, and residents learn more about their areas from each other and their security cameras than they do from the police. But if they share that information with police, he said, safety increases. He also said he believes that communities should be able to decide for themselves what types and levels of policing they’d be comfortable with – community policing is malleable and different communities are comfortable with different levels of police presence.
Do you think the police should not be responsible for dealing with mental health calls…and do you support a new 988 emergency number to handle mental health calls?
Johnson said this is a tough question, and that in theory it would be “awesome” to have well trained, well paid clinicians to respond to calls involving mental health issues. But he said he has also never had a clinician tell him that they don’t want to be accompanied by police, because these kinds of situations are unpredictable. So Johnson said he supports having clinicians respond to mental health calls, but they should also be accompanied by some sort of law enforcement presence, perhaps a plain clothes officer who will be less threatening than a uniformed officer, doesn’t immediately escalate the situation with their presence, and can stay within a stone’s throw in case trouble arises.
What are the root causes of crime and how would you handle them?
Johnson said that currently we have a “perfect storm” of factors affecting crime. First, he said, he’s not a fan of District Attorney George Gascon and believes Gascon’s leniency in many situations has exacerbated crime. But the pandemic has also contributed to the problem, he said, as has Proposition 47 (which reclassified certain crimes from felonies to misdemeanors), and the ready availability of technology to criminals (which makes it easier to coordinate things like smash-and-grab robberies).
Is poverty a factor?
Johnson said poverty is a factor, but it also helps to exacerbate other issues…and all of it combined has contributed to our current situation.
If elected, what are three things you’d do on day one of the job?
Regarding homelessness, Johnson said he’d launch a 9-month plan, in which the first phase would be identification of people on the street who want immediate shelter. Next, he said, he’d visit all 22 neighborhoods in CD 13, thank people for their support, and ask them what they feel the most pressing issues are. Johnson promised that he won’t be someone who just sits in his office all day, and said the things that distinguish him as a candidate are his experience coordinating Air Force deployments, his value of people and safe communities, and that he always falls back on values in leadership. And finally, he said, he would form a team of friends and expert city operatives to run his office.
Johnson said he’s “super passionate” about the work ahead of him, and that people should look at the city and ask if things have gotten better or worse in the last few years. Homeless and crime, he said, are definitely worse. He said this election will set the pace for the next four years, and that all politics is local — how we spend money, how we address crime, and more. He said most of the other candidates in this race want to defund or abolish the police, which concerns him, and that Mitch O’Farrell, the incumbent running for re-election, also voted to cut the LAPD budget, putting us in the situation we’re in today, and forcing us now to play catch-up. Johnson said he’s compassionate and has cared about people his whole life, and that he traces the moment he became a public servant to his assignment as a crossing guard in the second grade.
To learn more about Johnson and his campaign, see https://stevejohnsoncd13.com/.
About Elizabeth Fuller
Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - with deep roots in both the Sycamore Square and West Adams Heights-Sugar Hill neighborhoods. She spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and is the co-owner/publisher of the Buzz.
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