On December 1, six candidates running to replace City Councilmember Paul Koretz in 2022 gathered together for a virtual “Melrose Votes for Safety” forum addressing the current and very urgent public safety matters facing CD 5 (e.g. shootings, robberies, home invasions, and “smash-and-grab” retail attacks). The forum was moderated by Liz Bronstein, from the Melrose Action neighborhood security group. Candidates participating included (in the order they were introduced):
Sam Yebri – Attorney, former member of the Los Angeles Civil Service Commission, and board member of the Friends of the Westwood Library. Lives in Westwood.
Katy Young Yaroslavsky – Attorney, Senior Policy Advisor for LA County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, where she helped create LA County’s Office of Sustainability and the Clean Power Alliance. Lives in South Carthay.
Kristina Irwin – Real estate agent and notary. “I am not a career politician, lobbyist, or lawyer. I am a passionate mother, a frustrated community member, and a fed-up American.”
Scott Epstein – UCLA policy analyst, eight-year president of the Mid City West Neighborhood Council. Lives in the Fairfax district.
Jimmy Biblarz – Attorney, faculty member at UCLA Law School, union member and activist. Lives in the Mid City West area.
Molly Basler – Owner of Inside Out Fitness/Wellness, taught yoga and meditation at Brotman Hospital Alcohol and Drug Rehabilitation Center, and formed the Green Dream Campaign with the West LA Democratic Club.
This was not the first candidate forum for the district, and it definitely won’t be the last before the June, 2022 primary election, but it was a chance for many of us to get an early look at most of the candidates, and to hear their views on one very current and important topic. The discussion included opening and closing remarks from each candidate, questions from the moderator, and then questions from the audience. Candidates were allowed two minutes to answer each question.
What would you do to increase safety and decrease crime in CD 5?
Yebri started things off by replying that as a father of four, “there is no more important issue” than community safety, which involves working on both crime prevention and deterrents, as well as holding people accountable when crimes are committed. Yebri praised current Councilmember Paul Koretz for funding both an increase in LAPD overtime hours and better street lighting, and also lauded a new city ordinance aimed at reducing the number of “ghost guns” on the street.
Yaroslavsky said it’s necessary to take a holistic approach to crime prevention, and said that, if elected, she would focus particularly on strategies to get more guns off the streets.
Irwin said that if she is elected, she would use her district discretionary funds to address issues of “blight,” such as trash and graffiti removal, as well as hold town hall meetings on crime issues, increase funding for police, and create a special LAPD unit to specifically help businesses that are being harassed or targeted by criminals.
Epstein agreed with Yaroslavsky that it’s important to take a comprehensive approach to public safety, addressing culture, enforcement (e.g. with a leaner, more effective police force), and policy (such as redesigning Melrose Ave. itself to slow traffic and make it harder for criminals to flee quickly).
Biblarz said that if he’s elected, he would try to create a civilian Office of Public Safety to work with LAPD and help with issues the police are not trained to deal with (such as homelessness, mental health, and addiction). He said he also wants to help reduce risks to people of color, get more eyes on the streets, to help make people feel safer, reduce vehicle traffic, and generally help people feel comfortable being out and about.
And finally, Basler said she, too, is a big believer in bringing people together, so she likes the idea of LAPD’s mobile police stations, having town hall meetings at which residents and police can talk to each other, and talking directly with businesses that have been harmed by crimes. She said she would like to reform, but not defund, the police, and would like to bring in more social service workers so police don’t have to deal with things like homeless responses.
What are your views about street vending on Melrose?
Yaroslavsky said street vendors are a very important part of the local economy, but they can also present certain challenges when it comes to potential health concerns and blocking sidewalks. She said the city needs regulations for street vendors that are much easier to understand, navigate, and enforce than current policies.
Irwin said she understands how people can be divided on this issue, but that if the vending activity is done legally, with permits, it is OK. But she also said she would like to hear what local brick and mortar businesses think about vending in their areas, because it is a problem if vendors block access to storefronts, and/or if they sell the same merchandize as nearby stores.
Epstein said he thinks street vendors are an important part of the local economy, but that current city council members have “dragged their feet” and haven’t been able to implement a truly fair street vending policy that can be enforced effectively.
Biblarz said that he, too, believes that vendors are part of the “urban fabric” of the area, but that we need a “win-win” solution – such as making sidewalks wider to accommodate both pedestrians and vendors – which doesn’t pit street vendors against brick and mortar stores. Biblarz also noted that it’s currently very hard to start a small business in Los Angeles, and that street vending can provide a low cost step on that path for many people. At the same time, however, he said, vending shouldn’t be an act of economic desperation, so we also need to address the issues of poverty that lead some people to street vending.
Basler said she supports “strategically smart” street vending, and that she does think a good solution to the problems can be found if vendors and businesses get to know each other. “It’s all about working together,” she said. “Unity is power, division is weakness.”
And Yebri agreed with the others who said street vending is important to the area, but the city needs to more effectively enforce its own rules to help protect brick and mortar businesses. Yebri said it breaks his heart to see armed guards protecting brick and mortar stores these days, and the city’s failure to enforce its own rules – on many issues – is one reason for the “level of lawlessness” that has now taken hold in Los Angeles.
How would you handle calls about homeless encampments?
Irwin said that, if elected, she would hold public safety roundtable discussions monthly, to help identify homeless encampments with high crime rates and act quickly to address them.
Epstein said that because every homeless encampment is different, he would support an approach that acknowledges both individual and place issues. He said we need to drive resources to encampments, but we still need more temporary services and placements to meet the needs of various individuals. Those resources include safe camping and safe parking sites, he said, but not more congregate shelters. And at the same time, he said, we also need comprehensive housing reform so we can house more people faster and more cheaply than we do now.
Biblarz said he would use his office’s funds to put more social workers on his own staff, to better engage with those in need and to better develop individual housing plans. We can’t just sweep people away, Biblarz said, because they will just go somewhere else on the street. The only thing that works, he said, is developing strategies for long term housing, and we can’t talk about addressing encampments (the tip of a much larger iceberg) without addressing the larger housing picture, which also includes millions of people who are on the verge of losing their current housing.
Basler said we definitely have to build more affordable housing, but we also need to deal with the larger gridlock and corruption in the current system. First, she said, we need to look at who is living in a particular encampment, and then find an appropriate place for that individual to go. One place to start, she said, would be to repurpose existing empty buildings, and also work harder to address mental illness and addiction issues.
Yebri said our current problem with homeless encampments results from a of lack of leadership, not money – the city recently spent $2 billion on housing, but the number of homeless on our streets continues to increase, and our leaders refuse to admit that current approaches aren’t working. Every time a person sleeps on the street, Yebri said, it’s a “preventable tragedy.” We have to get people indoors immediately, and we can’t cure hypothermia by building a new hospital, he said. Instead, we need to get serious about addressing mental health laws, and get the police out of the picture.
Finally, Yaroslavsy agreed that we can’t just continue to let people live and die on the streets, and that we can’t stabilize those in trouble until we put a roof over their heads. To do that, she said, we need to spend money on solutions such as converting existing buildings and hotels into housing, building tiny homes, and creating safe camping sites…as well as more mental health beds. “It’s not rocket science,” she said, and we do have the money to do it, but just haven’t had the “fire” to make it happen. Also, said Yaroslavsky, it will be extremely important for the city of Los Angeles (which handles housing issues) and LA County (which is in charge of health and mental health issues) to work hand in hand on solutions…something she would encourage by holding weekly calls with LA County Supervisors.
What do you think of Prop 47 (the new law that reclassifies certain theft and drug possession offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, allows resentencing of those currently serving time for felonies that have been reclassified as misdemeanors, and reclassifies those felonies to misdemeanors on the records of those who have already served time for the offenses)?
Epstein said he thinks the focus of the justice system should be on making sure people return to constructive lives after they’ve served their sentences, and that the kinds of crimes reclassified by Prop 47 are not a significant source of public safety problems. Instead, he said, the current uptick in crime is more likely due to a combination of factors, including the pandemic, various policy failures, social inequities, poverty, ineffective policing, and more. To fight these, he said, we need to significantly reimagine public safety…not by defunding the police, but by reallocating funds to more effective solutions. But so far, he said, the City Council has been “asleep at the wheel” and just doubling down on things like LA Municipal Code section 41.18, which criminalizes the homeless by making it illegal to sit, lie, or sleep in public spaces.
Biblarz noted that Prop 47 simply reclassifies certain kinds of crimes and sentences, so it’s not the cause of our current rise in crimes. Instead, he said, we need to look at solutions that are not rooted in incarceration, which isn’t a productive tool for people who are addicts or have other kinds of problems. So instead of vilifying Prop 47, he said, we should applaud its effort to take the focus off the prison system, whose mark is so strong that anyone touched it by my never recover.
Basler said she doesn’t know whether or not Prop 47 has contributed to the recent rise in criminal activity, but that she agrees we have to look at the systemic roots of crime, and that failing to do so is like trying to put a band-aid over a wound in the jugular vein. Instead, she said, we need better schools (there’s no reason Los Angeles should have among the worst in the nation)…and to take other measures so we don’t create criminals in the first place.
Yebri noted that Prop 47 was approved by 67% of voters, and did create alternatives to incarceration in some cases, which is good. But he said the law has also had some unintended consequences, which have emboldened gangs and criminals, and we need to admit those mistakes and correct them. That, he said, would be a test of “mature leadership,” but the current career politicians won’t do it.
Yaroslavsky said Prop 47 was passed with the “staggering” background of the U.S.’s high incarceration rates, and it tried to redirect funds to crime prevention and ways to reduce recidivism, which are good goals. At the same time, however, she said one unintended consequence has been that drug use isn’t being charged at all now, because police don’t want to bother with misdemeanors. And while personal drug use shouldn’t be criminalized, she said, we also don’t really have places where people can go to get clean. Jail used to be the solution, but it wasn’t the right answer, and we still need to create much-needed rehab facilities and job opportunities. So we do need criminal justice reform, Yaroslavsky said, but we also need to create pipelines to good jobs, and invest in safer communities in other ways. And it’s not just a CD 5 problem, but something that needs to be addressed regionally, with the cooperation of many local governments and organizations.
Irwin said there are systemic flaws in the justice system, but there are now no deterrents for low-level crimes, which just results in people who commit crimes coming back and doing it again. “We have a system that favors the criminal and not the victim,” she said, promising to work with Chambers of Commerce, other business groups, and the police to help the areas worst hit by arson, violence, and looting. More streetlights and security cameras aren’t going to help, she said, without a strong District Attorney to prosecute criminals to punish and deter them.
Who would you vote for if you could NOT, under pain of torture, vote for yourself?
Jimmy Biblarz: Scott Epstein
Molly Basler: Sam Yebri
Sam Yebri: Molly Basler
Katy Yaroslavsky: Jimmy Biblarz
Kristina Irwin: “Myself or a clone of myself”
Scott Epstein: Jimmy Biblarz
Where do you stand on COVID-19 vaccine mandates?
Irwin said she doesn’t believe in mandates, that vaccinations are a matter of personal choice, and that people should do their own research before deciding whether or not to get vaccinated.
Yebri said COVID vaccines have been proven safe and effective, and that we should incentivize vaccinations to help get as many people as possible vaccinated…and that includes using vaccine mandates in specific contexts.
Biblarz agreed that vaccine mandates have proven effective around the world, but noted that the approach taken by LAPD (which quickly enforced the mandates) has worked better than the path taken by the LA County Sheriff’s department (which has actively fought the mandates) has been much more effective at actually getting people vaccinated.
Basler said she, too, supports mandates, with the caveat that people who have specific medical complications should be eligible for exemptions. “If my neighbor is safer because I get vaccinated…then, yes,” she said. “We have to get this under control so we can all be free once again.”
Epstein, who said he works as a COVID case investigator contract tracer at UCLA, where 99% of students are vaccinated, said he strongly supports vaccine mandates in public spaces because we are a “human collective,” and this is a matter of public health where individual decisions affect other people.
Finally, Yaroslavsky, a mother of two children still too young for the vaccine, said she supports vaccine mandates because every day she worries for her children’s health. “This is a forum on public safety,” she said, “and if you talk about the biggest threat to our public safety right now, it’s COVID. And we are not going to be safe as a city, as a country, and as a planet until everyone who can get vaccinated does that. And there are very few exceptions that I’m willing to tolerate right now.”
What have you learned from other cities about solving public safety issues?
Basler said she has learned that Marin County and San Diego both have hate crime hotlines, in multiple languages, which allow people to report such incidents directly to the District Attorneys office for immediate action.
Yebri said he doesn’t think we need to go elsewhere for answers, and we can simply look around Los Angeles to see that the places where crime prevention works best are those that have the best relations between LAPD and the community, and between residents and their Senior Lead Officers…so he would like to help enhance those relationships.
Yaroslavsky said she has been impressed by the CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) Program in Eugene, Oregon, which takes calls that can be responded to with social service workers instead of the police, and frees emergency responders for more critical incidents.
Irwin said that, in addition to her previously proposed special LAPD unit to deal businesses that have suffered threats and harassment, she would like to emulate New York City’s “broken windows” theory, which takes the position that any crime, no matter how small (broken windows, graffiti, etc.), can lead to others if it’s not immediately addressed.
Epstein said he likes the Japanese idea of creating small community police stations (kōban) and unarmed foot patrols in the community, which can help better connect police officers and the residents they serve. He said we should also be thinking more about how our built environment can help – such as by increasing the number of housing units and grocery stores on Melrose, to bring more people to the street, and more eyes on the street.
And, finally, Biblarz cited the Boston Miracle (a.k.a. Operation Ceasefire and the Boston Gun Project), which helped to significantly reduce gun violence by focusing on gun trafficking and gang violence in specific hotspots. The program involved a combination of non-profit and grass roots organizations, as well as the police, and addressed the causes of crime with programs that provided job counseling and even Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Biblarz said he also likes the approach of the Red Hook Community Justice Center, in Brooklyn, which engages crime victims in helping to figure out what kinds of punishments for criminals will make the victims feel most whole and safe…which doesn’t always involve prison sentences.
If elected, what would you do to build better relationships with LAPD?
Yebri said he would partner with community organizations like Melrose Action to bring people together and build on shared values.
Yaroslavsky agreed that building relationships and transparency are very important – and that she would bring as many different kinds of people to the table as possible for those discussions. Also, she said, communication is important not just within our own community, but across district boundaries, so a council office should be able to integrate and build relationships both within the district and with other parts of the city, as well as with other parts of city government.
Irwin said she would make sure there is adequate funding for police to respond to criminal activity, but that support for LAPD and the Sheriff’s office are not enough if the District Attorney doesn’t do his or her job and adequately prosecute criminals. So she said she would also advocate for both increased funding for the police, and for a “hardcore” District Attorney, as well as working with the community. “It takes a village,” she said.
Biblarz said he would start with talking to, listening to, and learning from the police, through a series of roundtable discussions. For example, he said, there are many parts of police work, such as homelessness and other kinds of intervention, that police aren’t trained for and are not comfortable doing. So he said he would like to help remove those parts of the job, which could also help increase community trust in the police. Overall, he said, there’s currently a “disconnect” between what people need and what the police are offering, which can be closed with better conversations between the parties involved.
Epstein agreed with the others about the importance of building relationships at all levels, including staff such as City Council field deputies and Senior Lead Officers. Being a city councilmember, he said, has both a legislative component and an “on the ground” component, filled both by the Councilperson and their staff, and relationships between them and other groups like the police are very important — so coalition building would be a strong focus of his, too.
And Basler noted that it’s also important to build relationships within each neighborhood, between both individuals and businesses. She said she was surprised to learn that neighborhoods do have their own “beat cops,” so she would like to help neighbors get to know both each other and their LAPD officers. She said she would especially like to do an “uplift Fairfax” project to help support small businesses in that area, and to help with the uptick in crime it has seen since the 2020 riots there. She said she doesn’t think last year’s civil unrest would have been as bad if the police had come out to meet neighbors and discuss the issues at stake before things blew up. She said they definitely need to be out and about more, and talking more to people in the community, while also not having to respond to so many calls that are not in their area of expertise.
Yaroslavsky thanked the forum organizers, saying keeping people safe is the number one function of local government, and one which she is committed to, from making sure streets are well lit to much larger improvements. She said she will use her policy experience to address both immediate issues and their deeper causes.
Irwin said she would focus on issues of blight, and is also very “pro police.” “It’s important that everyone’s kids are safe, not just mine,” she said. And one way to do that, she said, would be to bring police back to school campuses, “so they can start that bond process with high school kids.” She also advocated support for local police foundation events that bring the community together.
“We all know that we have big problems in this city,” said Epstein, “and that they require bold solutions.” Epstein said he would try to build a city that’s affordable to all, comprehensively reimagine public safety, and provide a compassionate and proactive approach to ending homelessness. And he said he’s already trying to model that kind of community involvement with a number of community events that his campaign has been holding around the district.
Biblarz noted that he was scheduled to hold a community event the next day, where he invited people to come and talk about their concerns. He also reiterated that crime cannot be solved by incarceration alone, and that communities of color and the queer community are deeply discriminated against by the police, so we need alternatives to the current policing system, especially in the areas of traffic, mental health and homelessness.
Basler, a native Angeleno, said she has been “witnessing the demise of our city,” and that she’s running for office to help reverse that slide. In addition to public safety, she said the climate crisis is “another huge tsunami breathing down our necks,” and she’s trying to run a “green and regenerative campaign” that focuses on those issues, too. “I’m here to serve the people, the planet, and the animals,” she said. “We all share this planet together, and it’s important that we take care of each other.”
And, finally, Yebri agreed that safety concerns “are the issues that keep me up at night as a father.” It’s clear, he said, that he status quo isn’t working for anyone, and career politicians aren’t doing their jobs, so we need new, serious leadership.
If you’d like to watch the full forum, it can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GjyzmH7khX0
My vote goes to Kristina Irwin for LA city council. Her answers are right on point and she speaks for me – supporting our police and no mandates. Irwin has my vote!