Between defund and defend, L.A. tries new tactics, bigger budget for cops
Pastor Tyrice Cagle was greeted by officer Able Estopin during a barbecue at Mount Carmel Park in South Los Angeles. Cagle and his volunteer organization, Strong Shoulders, also works with the city of L.A.'s Safe Passage Program. (Carlos Gonzalez/StarTribune)
LOS ANGELES – Movie night was about to start at a park on the city’s south side when four police officers approached Tyrice Cagle.
“Just let us know what you need,” a cop told him.
After running afoul of authorities as a gang member in his youth, Cagle has dedicated himself to discouraging crime as a community intervention worker. On this night, as the smell of pork ribs and salmon wafted from a nearby grill, he directed the officers to stand guard at the park’s perimeter and act as a backstop for him and his civilian colleagues, who would serve as the first line of defense if trouble arose.
It was a quick, friendly exchange, and one that embodies recent efforts by the city to invest in new strategies when it comes to urban policing.
In the days after George Floyd’s death last year at the hands of Minneapolis police, thousands here rallied in the streets calling for change in a department scarred by a history of police brutality.
At one point, protesters chanted “defund police” outside Mayor Eric Garcetti’s home, prompting him to backtrack from a planned increase in the police budget. Instead, he cut department funding by $150 million and invested much of the money in communities of color, including the intervention program in which Cagle participates.
“In L.A., I think we’d already had a very strong movement around police reform, and around public safety reform,” said Council Member Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who represents Cagle’s neighborhood. “And [Floyd’s death] just kind of supercharged it.”
Yet more than a year after Floyd’s killing, Los Angeles’ commitment to that reform is being tested.
Amid a budget crisis late last year, the city considered laying off nearly 1,000 officers. But as crime rose and federal pandemic relief funds came in, the mayor increased the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) budget 3% in April. And the new head of the civilian oversight board said last month that the city needed more officers amid a surge in homicides.
Garcetti struck a careful balance in his April State of the City speech, touting expanded gang intervention and mental health programs, a guaranteed basic income pilot and $1 billion for homelessness.
“If you want to abolish the police, you’re talking to the wrong mayor,” he said. “If you want to move backward toward a failed us-and-them strategy … you’ve come to the wrong place.”
The mass protests after Floyd died under a policeman’s knee in May 2020 hearkened back to Los Angeles’ own fraught history with police. Black residents’ frustration with law enforcement fueled the 1965 Watts riots, and tensions between Black citizens and the LAPD exploded in 1992 after the acquittal of four officers filmed beating Rodney King. A series of police chiefs oversaw reforms with varying success, yet today, activists charge that the LAPD is better at public relations than meaningful change.
Look no further, critics say, than the city block that police damaged in June. Officers detonated a man’s stash of illegal fireworks on the street outside his home after deeming them too unsafe to transport. But police underestimated the weight of the fireworks, later determined to be 42 pounds, triggering an enormous explosion that injured 17 people and damaged nearby homes.
Unión del Barrio organizer Ron Gochez said residents feel that the LAPD acted negligently because the neighborhood is made up of mostly poor Latino residents.
“We were asking them, ‘Why did you detonate this in our neighborhood?’ ” he said, walking the scarred, empty block as police officers stood guard in the distance. “Everyone said this wouldn’t have happened in Beverly Hills. … It wouldn’t have happened in Santa Monica.”
Gochez teaches at a nearby high school, where he hears from kids about cops harassing their families. And police killed two of his former students. But while Gochez has long advocated against police misconduct, he is not active in the defund movement. He knows that officials can cut law enforcement funding one year and change their minds the next. Instead, he believes in organizing people for community self-defense.
The vote to increase the LAPD budget this year “proves the point we said from the beginning. … It’s a temporary Band-Aid,” he said.
‘A slow process’
The push to defund plays out weekly outside the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union for city officers. There, on an August afternoon, Black Lives Matter–Los Angeles protesters stood before a mural adorned with the images of activists — their painted eyes facing the union hall like watchdogs — and a list of community needs with the word “police” crossed out. They chanted the names of the those killed by police, often uttering “ashay,” the Yoruba word for amen. They condemned the fireworks scandal, the murder of Floyd and the many losses from years past.
Among the regulars was Albert Corado, who moved to Minneapolis in 2018 but returned home after his sister Melyda was killed by LAPD officers. She had been working at a grocery store when police accidentally shot her while chasing a suspect there. Corado was accustomed to hearing promises of reform after his sister’s death, and was skeptical when they resurged last year. Corado told the crowd that police have kept killing even after Floyd’s death, and the way to prevent crime isn’t by funding law enforcement. “It will be a slow process to get the police to be abolished, but I believe we can do it. … Reform has never worked.”
The LAPD argues otherwise. It says it’s down more than 500 sworn, deployed officers — from 9,958 to 9,401 — since Floyd’s death, a staffing level that union spokesman Tom Saggau called “wholly inadequate.”
Saggau said the department is improving, pointing out that in 2019 it reported the fewest officer shootings — 26 — in 30 years. And it can get even better, he said, but not by stripping away resources.
Amid last year’s cutbacks, the union pushed back. It launched websites, erected billboards targeting some council members, and ran ads asking city leaders what their plan was to keep people safe. “The folks who have advocated defunding in Los Angeles have lost,” Saggau said.
But he noted the department supports sending mental health workers to some 911 calls — a strategy that even competing groups agree with.
Mental health calls
For years, LAPD has dispatched pairs of clinicians and armed officers to respond to some mental health calls, a program in its pilot stage in Minneapolis.
Still, leaders at LAPD and Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services have spoken for years about doing more — establishing a system to divert suicide 911 calls to counselors who could calm people in distress over the phone and connect them to services.
After hearing the mayor talk about policing alternatives last summer, Didi Hirsch Projects and Grants Manager Sandri Kramer called Police Capt. Brian Bixler, a project partner, and said, “This is our moment. We can make this happen.”
They secured money from the mayor’s innovation fund and rolled out the program in February for eight hours a day. By July, it ramped up to 24 hours and had diverted 771 calls by month’s end, though police still respond when people pose an immediate threat to themselves or others.
“It’s not necessarily about defunding the police,” Kramer said. “It’s just making sure that the moneys go to serve our public in the best way.”
Last fall, local leaders announced a new effort to dispatch mental health workers in therapeutic transport vans to some nonviolent 911 calls — a way to connect people in crisis with a broader array of services without agitating them by showing up in a police car or ambulance. The county introduced the program on a smaller scale this summer, though a full launch has been delayed until the city approves a memorandum of understanding.
“We’ve been waiting for the city of Los Angeles, frankly, to get it together,” said Jonathan Sherin, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.
One morning this month, a team of three county mental health workers responded to a call that a woman was saying she was going to kill people. The trio arrived to find her weary-looking landlord, who said the woman had been digging holes out back because she believed babies were buried there. Jimmy Recio, a registered nurse and mental health counselor, negotiated with the woman from the porch, saying he was there to help.
“No, no, no! Get out!” she said.
Finally, after rambling about the White House, the Army and fraud, the woman calmed down. She said she had no intention of hurting anyone or herself, and declined Recio’s offer to take her to a doctor. He suspected that she had a type of schizophrenia, but she did not meet the criteria for an involuntary psychiatric hold or pose a real danger. He gave the woman his card, took her number and thanked her.
“We’re not here to jam you up, OK?” Recio assured her.
For years, Recio has worked in clinician-police officer teams and found that police have had to be “psychologists in blue.” But he doesn’t see cutting officers as the answer. Rather, he supports more training.
‘We know how to do it’
Days after Floyd’s killing, the Los Angeles City Council voted to conduct a study looking into the removal of armed police officers from traffic stops and handing off those duties to Department of Transportation officials, an idea later proposed by the mayor of Brooklyn Center, Minn., after a cop there shot and killed Daunte Wright, a Black motorist.
Council Member Harris-Dawson, who is African American and one of the proposal’s chief proponents, often hears from Black constituents about “stop and frisk in a car.” He said he also has been stopped under questionable circumstances while driving in his own district.
In an interview in his office, a mile and a half from where the 1992 riots began, Harris-Dawson said the steady growth of the LAPD budget, regardless of whether crime rises, falls or levels off, is “incredible.”
Two years ago, he started the South Los Angeles Community Safety Initiative (SLACSI) so that “unarmed neighbors” could keep parks and streets safe. Community intervention workers talk with gang members and negotiate safe passage for neighborhood kids, discourage retaliatory shootings and keep peace at funerals and community events. The initiative also funds healing circles, in which leaders bring together residents through meditation, deep breathing, group therapy and other strategies to heal trauma and discourage violence.
Using the extra funds approved last year, Harris-Dawson’s office is doubling the number of intervention workers to 100. He said crime has fallen in areas where the program operates: “You hear from the leadership of law enforcement saying, ‘Well you’re defunding us, give us our money back, that’s why crime is going up.’ And it’s like actually, ‘No, there are places where crime is going down so we know how to do it.’ ”
This story is part of a collaboration with the StarTribune through FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.