Back in early August, we reported on a forum about social justice issues held by the Cochran Ave. Baptist Church‘s social justice ministry, Miracle Mile 4 Justice. It was a wide-ranging discussion among several city officials, who – energized by recent protests and subsequent drives to reimagine local law enforcement – vowed at the time to keep the discussion going. And last Friday, September 11, they did just that, with a second forum including City Council Member David Ryu, CD 10 Candidates Grace Yoo and Mark Ridley-Thomas (who is also currently closing out his final term on the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors), Herb Wesson (currently the City Council Member in CD 10 and now running for the Board of Supervisors), West Hollywood Mayor Lindsey Horvath, and Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore.
As before, the forum panelists were welcomed by the church’s pastor, Charles Johnson, event host Lauren Selman, and moderator James Lafferty, Executive Director of the National Lawyers Guild in LA. In his opening remarks, Lafferty said MM4J has several goals:
- To bring about the restructuring of the Los Angeles Police Department
- To institute a comprehensive retraining program for LAPD officers
- For the city of Los Angeles to adopt a Declaration of Human Rights for all residents of the city.
In his introduction, Lafferty said the widespread racial justice protests this year, following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, have left us at an “historic crossroads,” with a reform movement that is broader and more sweeping than ever before. He also claimed that more than anything else at the moment, white supremacy is the biggest ongoing problem our nation faces, in every aspect of American life. But today, Lafferty said, we are called to stand our ground, build an anti-racism movement and “drive the nails of love into racism’s coffin.”
Like the previous forum, this one was shaped largely as a question and answer session, with Lafferty posing questions and calling on specific panelists for responses. The conversation is paraphrased below.
The California state legislature recently failed to pass several fairly modest proposals for police reform – including decertification of officers who have been removed from duty for malfeasance, allowing citizens to see records of complaints against specific officers, banning the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and other “less lethal” weapons, and requiring officers who see other officers engaging in abusive behavior to report what they’ve seen. How do you feel about these proposals?
Moore responded that LAPD has actually already implemented some of these measures, and is actively working with the state legislature and the police union on reforms. As for the specific proposals, Moore said that requiring officers to intervene when they see abusive behavior by other officers has already been formalized into official policy.
But the decertification issue is tricker, Moore said, because it requires statewide action (so that an officer decertified in one location cannot just go and get a job elsewhere in California). Also, in the past, such decertifications required that the officer in question be convicted of a felony, which was a hard standard to meet. That said, however, Moore agreed that this reform is “overdue,” and that the Los Angeles Police Protective League (the union that represents LAPD officers) also supports it.
On the issues of transparency and discipline for problem officers, Moore said more work does need to be done. For example, if an officer is disciplined, LAPD should be able to tell the public what disciplinary actions were taken, which they cannot do now. So it is definitely time, he said, “to move forward into the 21st century” and “get rid of that cloak” that exists around police discipline.
Finally, regarding the use of various “non-lethal” weapons, Moore said tear gas has not been used in Los Angeles since 1968, and that current policy requires that any other such weapons be used only be in response to violent actions by others. He also said he is looking forward to working with other groups on shaping these policies for the future.
Those of us who watched the protests on TV saw use of rubber bullets and other less-lethal weapons that were not used according to that policy. How will you enforce the policy in the future?
Moore said incidents from the protests are still being investigated, but that if it turns out that tools were misused, the individuals who used them will be punished.
In fact, Moore said, there are currently three sets of ongoing investigations into the protests earlier this year. The first investigation was initiated by the Los Angeles City Council, which has engaged various subject matter experts to review the use of various police tools in the protests. In addition, according to Moore, there are more than 40 individual investigations in process, looking into specific incidents reported during the protest. Any officers who were found to have misused their power will be removed, as several in the San Fernando Valley already have been. And third, according to Moore, the Board of Police Commissioners has engaged the services of a Washington, D.C.-based “think tank” to analyze specific incidents from the protests. Moore said he hopes all the investigations will be completed by the end of the year, and the results made public.
Finally, Moore noted that in addition to the investigations of police activities at the protests, there were also 50 LAPD officers who suffered “serious” injuries (hit by bricks, cinder blocks, and other dangerous objects ) during the events, and those incidents are also beng investigated. “All sides need to be heard and listened to,” he said.
Moving on to other panelists, West Hollywood Mayor Lindsey Horvath noted that the reform issue is a bit different in West Hollywood, which contracts with the LA County Sheriff’s Department for law enforcement services…and that agency was among those that fought the reform measures at the state level. Horvath said, “the best allies we could ask for are people in uniform who agree” that reforms are necessary, and that one way to move things forward would be for law enforcement officers themselves, especially from the Sheriff’s Department, step up and support efforts to improve the system. Horvath also reported that West Hollywood belongs to a group of municipalities that is reviewing and analyzing city contracting processes, to figure out how law enforcement contracting, for cities that take that approach, can be improved.
Finally among those speaking to this question, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas agreed with Moore that some law enforcement reforms must come from higher up, including the federal level, to be effective…and he particularly noted the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, co-authored by Rep. Karen Bass, which would create broad standards for policing nationwide.
Ridley-Thomas said he and the Board of Supervisors have always had a philosophy of “care first, jail last,” when it comes to justice, and have long worked to create alternatives to incarceration. Today, however, he said, the current LA County Sheriff, Inspector General and others have created an “untenable set of circumstances,” and the fight to reform that system is “on.” “We won’t tolerate this sheriff turning back the clock” on police behavior, he said. (In fact, just yesterday, Ridley-Thomas joined two other Supervisors – along with City Council Member Ryu and a civilian oversight panel – in calling for LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva to resign.)
“Defunding the police” doesn’t mean “no police,” but instead spending the lion’s share of the law enforcement budget on social programs and moving many current functions of the police to other agencies. What is your position on this?
Moore said, “We welcome this approach,” but noted that if you ask 10 people what “defund the police” means, you’ll get 10 different answers. But he said LAPD is run according to a list of six core values, the last of of which is “quality through continuous improvement,” and that aligns directly with many of the proposed reforms.
But Moore said the details are also important. For example, the LA City Council has already voted to take $150 million and numerous personnel away from LAPD, and that is fine with him, he said, as long as the city also follows through “with the entire commitment,” meaning that it has to find a way to directly replace the 24-hour-a-day, 7-day-a-week service the police provide with similar round-the-clock services from another agency. For example, Moore said, LAPD currently has 100 officers assigned to homeless identification and engagement, so the city would have to make it possible for similar numbers of responders from another agency to do that work. He said he is eager for the city to build those networks, but that he also worries that not enough programs have been put in place yet “to hand this baton off.”
In general, though, Moore said he does support the effort. “For too long, we’ve been asked to do too much with too little,” he said, especially when it comes to things like mental health issues, traffic collisions and more. So he would like to see the the vision of social service support fulfilled, and “I look forward to people rolling up their sleeves and let’s get this done.”
Meanwhile, in addition to adding social service support for tasks now done by police, City Council Member Ryu said he also supports LAPD’s Community Policing program, and that the Department’s new Community Safety Partnership Bureau is based on best practices for community engagement from around the city. Ryu said this effort will be a big help while the city works on “right-sizing” LAPD in other ways. For example, he, too, cited working with the homeless as one task that probably should be handled by an agency other than LAPD, since “just the fact that an unhoused neighbor sees a person in uniform [responding to a call] sets the stage for conflict.”
Also, Ryu said he, too, supports decertification of problem officers. But on the issue of “less lethal weapons,” he said the real issue is not so much what the police use, but why and when they use such weapons – and what kinds of crowd control tactics are used for situations like protests. Ryu said he, too is eagerly waiting for the three sets of protest investigation reports.
Next, CD 10 candidate Grace Yoo said she agrees with Ryu’s comments, and was glad to hear from Moore that at least some of the broader reform ideas are already LAPD policy. In addition, Yoo advocated creating a public database of “rogue officers,” as well as more overall trasparency and accountability for the police.
City Council Member Wesson began his remarks on this topic by lamenting that it seems to “take acts of carnage or chaos” to bring change in law enforcement tactics, but since that’s what we’ve had recently, “that’s why it’s so important for us to not blow this moment.” He noted that all the elected officials on the panel have long been involved in trying to increase transparency at LAPD, but the efforts need to go even further. “Maybe it’s not the policies but the system of policing that needs to be changed,” Wesson said, adding that he is now very optimistic about the current opportunity. “I believe we can get this done,” he said. “This is our moment, and this is our time, and we must get it right and it must work.”
Wesson said he has many kinds of reform recommendations, but they’re all aligned with two central themes: 1. more investment in economically challenged neighborhoods (because such investment leads to reductions in crime), and 2. dealing with individuals with mental health and substance abuse issues differently than we do today. For example, he said, it would make much more sense to send a specially-trained duo to respond to calls involving drunkenness. One of the two responders could drive the impaired individual home, while the other drives the individual’s car. Then they would leave the person safely at home with an order to appear in court within 45 days.
Wesson also said that traffic stops, which lead to most of the conflicts between law enforcement officers and the public, could be similarly removed from police responsibility. And officers who now deal with gang issues could be retrained to work with the homeless. He said a City Council committee will soon be having these discussions…but he also cautioned that if the city is going to implement these reforms, it will have to do them in a way that will work, because while many people would like to see the city succeed, there is also a “signifiant percentage” of the public that would like to see the city fail. But Wesson said he remains dedicated to the effort. “I am going to spend most of my time on this issue, and this issue alone,” he vowed.
Finally, regarding the LA County Sheriff, Wesson said he would like the Sheriff to be appointed, like the LAPD chief, and not an elected position, so that the Sheriff reports to, and can be removed by, someone other than the voters.
Ridley-Thomas agreed with Wesson on this point, saying that in his decades of dealing with law enforcement officials, he has “never had to deal with one who is as rogue as the current Sheriff of the County of Los Angeles,” and that includes notorious police chief Daryl Gates. But changing the nature of the Sheriff’s position, Ridley-Thomas said, would be difficult because it would require legislative intervention and an amendment to the state constitution.
That said, however, Ridley-Thomas also noted that the county Supervisors do hold some influence over the Sheriff’s Department, because the Supervisors control the budget and litigation regarding the department, and can intervene to some extent in the department’s operations. Still, though, he said, “This Sheriff has done more damage to [law enforcement] reform in the County of Los Angeles than anyone else.”
Horvath agreed that there are big issues with the current Sheriff’s Department, and said one of her biggest concerns are the so-called “cliques” in the department, which are really “gangs” and not groups of “15-year-old girls in a locker room.” Horvath said we should call the gangs what they are, root them out, expect transparency on the issue, and support investigations of the activity.
LAPD operates an “ever expanding” array of surveillance activities, with people of color much more likely to be reported on as a result. What are your thoughts on this kind of policing?
Ridley-Thomas said surveillance has to be monitored with “rigor and care,” especially at a time during which protests are taking place. But he noted that some law enforcement agencies have also engaged in valuable surveillance of Neo-Nazi organizations, and we need to be careful to distinguish between surveillance of groups engaged in peaceful protest for change, and that of groups dedicated to violent disruptions – and we need official standards to help distinguish between the two.
Ryu said Ridley-Thomas accurately pointed out the “double-edged sword” of surveillance, and how you distinguish between those with potential for violence and those who are simply engaging in their rights of free speech and freedom to protest. He said traffic stops provide a good example of this — most traffic stops don’t require the involvement of an armed officer (which can result in greater profiling and arrests for people of color), but that if we move away from manned traffic stops and toward more automated means of traffic surveillance, as many Asian countries have done, people will complain about invasion of their privacy – which happened when the city installed red light cameras at many intersections a few years ago. Ryu noted that many Asian countries even track the cell phones of their citizens, but if we would like that type and amount of data collection, we will also need to decide which freedoms we are willing to lose to get it. Many people would say “none,” he said, but we may have to find a “happy medium.”
At this point in the discussion, Lafferty moved into a speed round, rapidly firing questions and asking panelists to respond with very brief answers.
How will Los Angeles handle the looming eviction crisis?
Wesson said he is proud of the fact that Los Angeles is one of the first cities to enact strong protections for renters during the current pandemic, and that we’ve also provided $100 million in assistance for small businesses. We’ve set the standards for protecting our residents, Wesson said, and we don’t want to exacerbate homelessness.
How do you stand on Measure J (which would mandate that “no less than 10% of the county’s general fund be appropriated to community programs and alternatives to incarceration, such as health services and pre-trial non-custody services”)?
Ridley-Thomas, Wesson, and Horvath all said they support the Measure.
How do you feel about having mental health professionals as first responders for certain types of calls?
Ryu noted that in many cases, there is already a team response to such calls, where both a police officer and a mental health professional arrive together. But he said that the police should actually be the “last person to respond” to many calls involving homeless individuals because we want to help and not criminalize people who are unhoused. So Ryu said it would be ideal for teams of social workers or mental health professionals to respond to such calls, and they could work out with the police in advance how to approach each individual situation.
How can Los Angeles still hold the 2028 Olympics if we cut back the police department?
Wesson said the city worked hard for the opportunity to host the Olympics, and that has not changed even though “everything else” has. But he said no one knows yet what will happen with the pandemic, and even though we are also reimagining the police force, we still plan to move forward with the plans for the Olympics.
Our Miracle Mile 4 Justice t-shirts have a QR code on the back that anyone can click to register to vote. How can we makse sure everyone can vote safely this year, and with no long lines?
Ridley-Thomas said it’s the responsibility of the LA Country Registrar to make sure everyone can vote. He noted that people will be able to vote up to 10 days in advance of election day, there will be mobile voting opportunities, the ability to vote by mail, and more. And he said the city and county will work aggressively to make sure everyone knows all the opportunities and that local media – including local media that are closer to individual communities than the LA Times – can get the word out.
Yoo noted, however, that despite all of the city and county election efforts, there are still some problems. For example, she said her name wasn’t included on a Korean-language sample ballot sent out by a city vendor. This was a major failure, she said, and the city needs to be held accountable. Yoo also acknowledged that it’s nice that all voters will receive absentee ballots this year, to help avoid the “chaos” of last spring’s primary election (during which the internet wasn’t working at some polling places, there weren’t enough computers at others, and more). But she said there is still a problem with the city treating voters of different cultures differently, such as sending out English-language ballots before ballots in other languages. “That’s not the way democracy works,” she said.
Finally, Ryu noted that the city has now also placed ballot collection boxes in many locations around the metro area, and the city clerk will have other drop-off sites, too.
The final question of the night came from the church’s Pastor Johnson, reading a query from a young stakeholder:
Why should young Black millenials continue to have hope in the police when they have failed 100% of the time?
Ridley-Thomas spoke first to this issue, saying “Hope always beats hopelessness.” And every vote that a young person casts, he said, is a chance to be heard. Furthermore, he said, the current reform movement is all about power and “your empowerment.” “You’re coming up,” he said. “I salute the millenials who are coming up.”
And Wesson, too, finished with a message of positivity for young Black people and their potential to spark real change. “I have been Black forever,” Wesson said. “Every day I wake up and I’m Black. We can talk about criminal justice reform forever, but this is our moment. This is our time. People of all skin tones, from New York to California, took to the streets. But Black people need to lead this effort and plant the flag in the heart of this country. This is our chance to make this count and to finally atone for the genocide of Native Americans and slavery.”
It was a heart-felt statement that set the stage well for the closing element of the program, local musician Monique DeBose’s, powerful video of her song “Rally Call.”
If you’d like to watch the full MM4J discussion from September 11, a recording is available at https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=626465908034908&external_log_id=aa764777-5581-4c83-ac1b-e14c339af867&q=miracle%20mile%204%20justice
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.
- More Posts