Transcript: Into Defunding the LAPD

The full episode transcript for Into Defunding the LAPD.
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Hundreds join a Black Lives Matter memorial service and procession to honor George Floyd in Los Angeles on June 8, 2020.Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

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Into America

Into Defunding the LAPD

Trymaine Lee: Under most circumstances a city budget hearing can feel pretty routine.

Archival Recording: Can you hear me?

Lee: But last week in Los Angeles hundreds of Angelinos joined a crowded conference line to demand change from their police department.

Archival Recording: Yes, we can.

Archival Recording: First of all, I wanna say that is is wildly frustrating.

Archival Recording: You're paid a fortunate out of the city's money to oversee the terrorizing of the people of Los Angeles, particularly communities of color and the impoverished.

Archival Recording: I am a 16-year-old young black woman. And I just wanna propose the question: Do you know the trauma behind watching countless black men and women be killed by racist police officers?

Archival Recording: The fact that you did not foresee having more than 500 people come to this meeting is a sort of breathtaking lapse in responsibility and sort of emblematic of the larger problem.

Lee: In the wake of George Floyd's killing their voices are among the cores of people, all across the country, who are saying, "We need reform." We're in a moment when some people are calling for full abolition of police, getting rid of them entirely. But another growing demand? Defunding. Reducing the police department's budget and putting that money to work elsewhere.

Archival Recording: We need to defund the police department immediately. We don't need these people anymore killing our folks in the streets.

Lee: The day after that city council meeting on June 6th, Los Angeles mayor, Eric Garcetti, got behind that idea.

Mayor Eric Garcetti: We're working together on the actions that will make sure that those voices and those calls don't land flat but that result in the changes we all need.

Lee: The mayor said that the L.A.P.D. budget, which accounts for more than half of the city's entire budget, would be cut by up to 150 million dollars. He also said he would make 100 million in cuts to other departments. And in both cases, the money would be redistributed to communities of color.

Garcetti: 250 million dollars in cuts so we can invest in jobs, in health, in education, and in healing. And that those dollars need to be focused on our black community here in Los Angeles, as well as communities of color and women and people who have been left behind for too long.

Lee: The move comes after decades of tension between law enforcement and the city's black residents, tension that's persisted despite years and years of incremental policing reforms. So could defunding be the thing that finally makes a difference?

Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today we're going into LA's move to defund the police, to find out how this decision to reallocate police funds was made, how it will work, and whether this step goes far enough.

Archival Recording: Tinkering never works. We need to be bold and imaginative. And we have to usher in new forms of public safety.

Lee: Melina Abdullah is the head of the Los Angeles chapter of Blacks Lives Matter. But she grew up a few hours north in Oakland.

Melina Abdullah: I was born in the '70s, even though I still claim 29. So don't let the math fool (LAUGH) you.

Lee: You look 29. (LAUGH)

Abdullah: I'll take it. Thank you.

Lee: Melina is a mom and a professor of Pan-African studies at Cal State.

Abdullah: I came of age in the '90s. And, you know, that's kind of the height of the crack cocaine epidemic. That's the height of the war on drugs, the harassment of, especially young black people by police, was an every day regular occurrence. I remember, like, every time I went on a date we'd get pulled over.

The question was just how far would they take the harassment. So I didn't have to become conscious through, like, some political mechanism. It was our lives as black people of my generation that there was always tension between black folks and police.

Lee: And if you were young and black growin' up in California, or really anywhere during the early-'90s, you remember the moment in 1991 when grainy video footage captured four L.A.P.D. officers beating Rodney King during a traffic stop. (HELICOPTER)

Abdullah: We understood, almost viscerally, that the police were moving on behalf of someone who wasn't us.

Max Felker-kantor: That home video tape is shown around the world. And it's this moment when it's like, "Okay, the officers aren't gonna get out of it this time." We've had this experience of daily harassment and abuse, and a year later the officers are acquitted.

Archival Recording: And it's been an ugly, terrible situation all night long. Fires, looting, gunshots, random beating attacks. And now the National Guard may be ready to move in. Our chopper pilot Cliff Welsh has been over the violence all night. We're gonna go to him live.

Felker-kantor: It's that moment of frustration that erupts because of the ways the police had not changed and it erupted in the biggest moment of unrest in American history, in terms of a single city.

Lee: Max Felker-Kantor is an historian at Ball State University. He says in order to understand how Los Angeles got to this moment we're in now you've got to understand what the city's been through. That's a history that goes way back before King's beating.

Felker-kantor: Los Angeles, like many cities, experiences the great migration starting in the early twentieth century, you know, with then through World War II, where the black population grows exponentially. But the things that's crucial is that Los Angeles, prior to that, had largely been an Anglo-dominated city of white migrants.

And the police force was essentially a force that represented that white, Anglo, Protestant community. As the black population grows, the police see that as bringing criminality, bringing unrest, bringing disorder. And so the police, from almost moment one, had long been antagonistic to the black community. And you have black migrants in the '50s and '60s saying things like, "Essentially the police here don't operate any differently than how we were treated in the south."

Lee: That's amazing. So black folks fleeing the kind of wild, explicit violence of the south arrive and see it institutionalized in a different way once they get up to the north or the west.

Felker-kantor: There are even stories of the ways that the L.A.P.D. recruited officers from the south to bring to LA, right? And so it's even, there's that kind of reproduction of that system there of white supremacy and racial control, even just through the recruiting mechanism.

Lee: So that friction has sparked an explosion here and there. Walk us through just the uprisings, rebellions, tension that kind of spilled over in Los Angeles.

Felker-kantor: For this period I study it really starts with the 1965 Watts Uprising. The police, you know, pull over a black motorist. Then they handle him roughly, throw him, you know, are trying to arrest him, put him in the squad car. And a crowd comes out and says, you know, like, "You can't be treating him like this."

There's this kind of claim of brutality. The key is that that comes on a decade and a half of police brutality and harassment of residents in the black community. And so it's that moment where it's frustration and anger at the treatment by the L.A.P.D. of the black community that erupts into six days of anti-police protest and unrest.

Archival Recording: The 40th Armored Division employed nearly 8,000 officers and men to quell the riots. The riots were the single most devastating disaster to befall Los Angeles in its long history.

Lee: After the Watts Rebellion in 1965 came the police beating of Rodney King in '91 and subsequent riots after the officers' acquittal in 1992. Five years later there was another scandal.

Archival Recording: Former L.A.P.D. officer Rafael Perez, convicted of stealing cocaine, became an informant, revealing widespread misconduct in the anti-gang unit where he worked.

Felker-kantor: The rampart scandal, this moment where the anti-gang task force CRASH, or the Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums, CRASH (LAUGH)--

Lee: That sounds crazy.

Felker-kantor: Think of those acronyms. It's exposed that officers in that rampart CRASH unit were engaged in things like stealing evidence and cocaine from evidence rooms to sell, to frame suspects. There are some that were accused of just outright murdering suspects or other black and brown residents. And that gets exposed. And it again reveals that there's this systematic kind of racist, corrupt practice within the department, that it's not just bad apples here or there.

Lee: So there's been flash-point after flash-point. But along the way there have also been attempts at reform.

Felker-kantor: There's a few things that also come out of the Rodney King beating, which is crucial, is that there was actual city charter reform, where they took away the chief of police, his, like, life tenure. Because prior to that, the chief of police couldn't really be fired 'cause he had civil service protection.

So there is some reform at the, like, city charter structure level. At the national level, the federal government passes legislation that enables the Department of Justice to investigate police departments for patterns and practice of civil rights abuses.

Lee: In 2001 that law was used to put L.A.P.D. under federal oversight in an agreement between the Justice Department and the city known as a consent decree.

Felker-kantor: They essentially say, "There is a subculture and pattern and practice of racism and racist policing within the police department." And that, "This can't be solved by just one individual."

Lee: Had there actually been gains and progress during those years?

Felker-kantor: There's some evidence by some of the reports that come towards the end of these consent decrees in the LA case, where they're saying, "Yes, there are these changes that have been made," whether it's in kind of arrest statistics, crime going down, the sense of, like, polls, residents thinking that the L.A.P.D. are more fair and treat people better, right?

And they institute community policing. But there's a lot of evidence that's shown that coming out of that the L.A.P.D. in the past five years after the consent decree was lifted in 2013 continued to disproportionately stop black and brown residents, you know, in cars at disproportionate rates. The Metropolitan Unit, the elite Metro Unit of the L.A.P.D. continued to stop and frisk black and brown residents at increased rates. There might be a lot of people who would say, "Well, it is slightly better. It's not the 1980s." Right--

Lee: That's some bar, right? That's (LAUGH)--

Felker-kantor: Right. Right. Exactly. Some people might say, "Oh, well, we can change things if we give police body cameras." Most studies show that didn't change anything. Or, "We just need more community policing." Most studies of community policing, a lot of them show that the police officers actually go in and tell communities what they want.

They don't actually listen to community, right? And so there's all sorts of these, quote, reforms that actually don't do anything to reduce the power or authority of the police. And this is where I think we see the calls for things like defunding the police as a first step towards maybe getting policing and its racially discriminatory or racist role in containing certain communities in the present.

Lee: Okay, hold on. Let's pause right there for a second. Here's where I wanna make it plain. Defunding does not mean eliminating the budget line or taking all money away from police departments. It means making cuts. Max puts it this way:

Felker-kantor: These calls for defunding is about divesting or defunding from things like policing, which get a disproportionate share of city budgets. The idea is if you take money away from the police and, you know, invest it in communities, in things like mental health services, in schools, in employment programs.

Lee: Right now cities across the country are calling for this step to be taken. It's a rallying cry for protesters in places like Philadelphia, where their mayor proposed a 14 million dollar increase to the police budget. A majority of the city council announced they would not support his plan.

Archival Recording: Revolution, nothing less!

Lee: In New York Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to cut a portion of the N.Y.P.D.'s six billion dollar annual budget and redirect money to youth programming and social services.

Lee: In Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed, a majority of the city council went beyond budget promises and agreed to dismantle the city's police department and develop a plan to rethink public safety. And the rallying cry to defund is what Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti responded to last week when he said he would channel up to 150 million dollars away from the L.A.P.D. budget and invest that money into communities of color. When the mayor made his announcement he did so with a nod to the city's troubled history with law enforcement.

Garcetti: It is time to move our rhetoric towards actions to end racism in our society, to never forget also our city's own well-documented contributions to those ill-fated chapters.

Lee: So after years of police reform LA is trying something new. But can it work? Can taking money from the police actually help improve public safety. That's after the break.

Lee: Cutting a police department budget is a big deal. Unless there's a recession or other large-scale financial constraints, police budgets tend to remain untouched or even grow over time. That's true in LA. And before the killing of George Floyd and the weeks of protests against racism and police brutality, the city was actually planning a seven percent increase in the L.A.P.D. budget, which is currently 1.86 billion dollars for a city of just under four million people.

Curren Price: People are calling for a serious reevaluation of how funds are being spent, not just with the police department but how we're spending our funds, what we're doing to eliminate racism and bias.

Lee: Curren Price sits on the LA City Council. He's vice chair of the budget committee. And he's one of the people backing the proposal to divert funds away from the police department and into other community services. At this point, there are no commitments for where the money will go. But he has a few ideas.

Price: We can expand our youth programs. We can provide better training for those who are unemployed, those adults who have been unable to find work, veterans, formerly incarcerated or homeless. We can support our local minority businesses with grants and with loans. And so I think there's a lot we can do with 150 million dollars.

Lee: How did y'all come up with this figure, 150 million?

Price: We determined that that was kind of a figure that would really be a start and would show folks that we're serious. Give you a scale of reference. The police department spends about 100 million dollars a year on overtime, on overtime expenses.

Lee: Wow.

Price: So, you know, we know that there's going to be a dramatic reduction of public events, sporting events, concerts, et cetera. But we're willing to work with the police and the community, council colleagues, coming up with the number that makes sense and that can put us on a path of greater accountability.

Lee: You know, there are a lotta people in the community, in different communities, who see these police officers as heroes.

Price: Absolutely.

Lee: Do you expect that this shifting of funds from the police department will result in any heightened crime?

Price: No, I don't. As a matter of fact, I see it helping to reduce crime. Listen, I think a lot of our programming is going to be centered around not only helping keep the peace but also create a foundation where fewer armed policemen are going to be necessary in our community.

Lee: Of course within the city there's criticism of this move. A lot of that resistance is coming from the union representing the L.A.P.D., the Los Angeles Police Protective League. Jarretta Sandoz, the union's vice president, laid out some of her concerns to us. And I put them to Curren Price.

She told us over email, and I wanna quote this because this is pretty striking language she used, she said, "Cutting 150 million dollars from the L.A.P.D. budget is a reckless political overreaction that will make Los Angeles neighborhoods less safe."

And I wanna continue here. She says, "Cutting police officers will increase response times to 911 emergencies and will decimate our ability to investigate both property and violent crime. It will mean less money for special programs like cracking down on human trafficking or working compassionately with the homeless." Okay, what's your response to that criticism and everything you heard right there?

Price: Yeah. Well, I certain know Jarretta. I know she is a committed officer and has served our department well and our community well. But I disagree with her. I think we've gotta be more creative and more intentional about how we're using these funds.

We need to think about some new ways of providing safety and security in our communities. You know, I don't see an increase in crime with the reallocation of resources. I see an investment in the community that hopefully will prevent acts of criminal activity. You know, I see opportunities to employee young people and others to avoid the necessity of breaking into someone's house or store to try to make ends meet.

Lee: There isn't just local resistance to this idea. Even as public support for police reform grows, an online May poll from YouGov and Yahoo News shows that defunding ranks lowest in support on the list of five proposals to reduce the risk of deadly encounters with police. Ultimately though, in LA, this is all just a promise. The budget still has to be approved by city council ahead of the new fiscal year, which begins on July 1st.

Price: The reality is we'll be looking at the budget all during the year. So there's nothing in stone, nothing in concrete, that can't be changed, shifted, or adjusted. We can improve, expand. But there has to be a start. So I'm excited about this being a start here in the city of Los Angeles.

Lee: Some people wanna see this amendment period used to push Mayor Garcetti to go further in his commitment to defunding.

Abdullah: I wanna be clear that what has happened is not some kind of awakening on his part.

Lee: Here's Melina Abdullah from the Los Angeles chapter of Black Lives Matter.

Abdullah: He is understanding the political calculation. He wants to run for higher office. There are thousands and tens of thousands and yesterday hundreds of thousands of people in the streets demanding, "Defund the police." And so he wants to act like he's doing something.

But we should all be clear that when you propose to raise the budget by 150 million dollars and then you cut that same 150 million dollars that's not really a defunding of the police. You're just back to where you started. It's like when all of us have been into stores that inflate prices and then pretend like something's on sale. That's what he did.

Lee: But you also have said that he wants to, beyond just cutting money from the L.A.P.D., come up with another 100 million dollars that he would take from other city departments to contribute to youth jobs and health initiatives--

Abdullah: What other city departments? We weren't asking for cuts from other city departments. Who's he gonna cut from? The Department of Aging? The Department of Rec and Parks, right? Those are the things that we need. What we said is, "Defund the police. Fund services, not police."

Lee: The reality is under the strain of this economic moment all of the city departments have been asked to make cuts. But for Melina and Black Lives Matter LA this work goes back way before Coronavirus crippled the economy. And the killing of George Floyd ignited calls for reform.

Abdullah: So Black Lives Matter began examining the mayor's budget back in 2016 because we were shocked. When we saw the mayor's budget his own pie chart showed that he was spending upwards of 50% of the budget on L.A.P.D.

Lee: This year they convened a coalition of community groups to come up with something they call the people's budget. They surveyed more than 2000 people and engaged with ten times that amount through town hall meetings. In the end, they were able to make a set of recommendations for the city of Los Angeles.

Abdullah: We talked about the built environment, that's what we called it, the built environment, meaning things like parks and libraries. How much money would you put in that pot? And then we also included a pot for criminal justice. Again, that included L.A.P.D., traffic enforcement, and city attorney, which is the prosecutor.

And people wanted to spend the least amount of money on traditional criminal justice. No demographic group wanted to spend more than eight percent of the budget on traditional criminal justice, not white men, not black women. Black gender-non-conforming people said zero percent of the budget should (LAUGH) go there, right? And so it's really interesting to see that everyone was in alignment around not wanting to spend on traditional models of criminal justice.

Lee: In the city survey of LA residents people said things like, "Food, healthcare, and economic assistance should take up about 44% of city spending."

Abdullah: One of the things that people are most concerned about is housing. In Los Angeles County we have 60,000 people who are living without homes, who live in tents on Skid Row, who live under freeways. And people just think that is completely unacceptable. And it is.

Lee: So the mayor's budget isn't final yet. And there's some time and some room to play with, in terms of getting things amended, getting things taken out and put in. But what does the work look like to get the people's budget more closely aligned with the mayor's budget. Like, the coming weeks, what are y'all gonna be doing on the ground to kind of push the people's budget closer to what the mayor has proposed?

Abdullah: Well, we're pushing his budget towards ours. We ain't pushin' ours towards his. We're trying to pull his into alignment with ours, right? Black Lives Matter does a lotta protest work. But we also do a lotta policy work. And it doesn't sound exciting. But we line up thousands of people to be callers to offer public comment, "Defund the police and this is why," and offer their own reasons. So every day we're engaged.

Lee: You know, in the wake of the nationwide protests and uprisings we've heard a lot about this idea of the abolition of police and the defunding of police. For those who don't know this all sounds like a foreign language and alien talk for some people. Are they connected? Are they different? Break it down for us.

Abdullah: They are connected. So defunding is one way that we get to abolition, where our approach to public safety isn't reliant on policing. We also need to think about abolition, abolition meaning tearing something down but also building something up. So we wanna tear down and drive out the form of policing that we have. But we wanna be imaginative and creative and invest in new forms of public safety.

Lee: And there are a lotta folks who understand the line you're going with here. They understand the thinking the behind it. But then they'll say, you know, "What happens when the drunk driver is speeding down the road? What happens when the robbery is in progress or the neighbor is stabbed" How do we respond to those kind of violent incidents that put people's lives in danger?

Abdullah: So one, I don't have all the answers. I'm trying to give you some of the answers that I have--

Lee: Wait a second. I thought it was in your notepad. I thought you were solving everything (LAUGH) in this call right now--

Abdullah: No, I don't have all the answers. These are collective questions that we have to ask ourselves as community. But police with guns don't solve drunk driving. When you talk about someone with a knife in a domestic situation we need to get to the point where we develop and foster and nurture healthy relationships. So how do we breed that in our communities? Even when you talk about a robbery, why do most robberies take place? It's because someone needed something. I think I've seen that you're a parent, right?

Lee: I am. Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

Abdullah: You're a parent, right--

Lee: I am. Yeah, right--

Abdullah: I'm a parent. So we can think about it in terms of parenting. I just wanna draw a parallel here. When I was young I got a lotta whoopin's. And my mother is a great mother. You know, she also talked to us. But if you did somethin' wrong you got a whoopin'.

I have never whooped my children. And I have three. And one of them is especially challenging, right? I call her my greatest joy and my greatest frustration. It's much more effective for me to say, "Amara, why are you doing that?" And say, "Oh, Amara needs to be outside. She doesn't do well if she's cooped up in the house.

"If she's cooped up in the house she's gonna mess things up." You know, parents will tell you whoopin's might scare you, but they actually don't change behavior. Do you wanna have a society that's fearful and traumatized? Or do you wanna have a society that's healthy and that steps into the power of who it can be? So let's get to the root of the problem. Let's ask people who are not abiding by societal rules, "What do you need?"

Lee: Do you believe in your heart, as long as you've been doin' this work, that now is a time that we will see change, that we will see, you know, wholesale reform in the police or restructuring? You believe it in your heart?

Abdullah: Oh, my God. I believe it with every ounce of my being, every fiber of my being. People say, "Everything's impossible until it's done." And it's happening. It's moving. Here in Los Angeles to have 100,000 people flood the streets of Hollywood, I can't tell you how that fed my spirit.

Lee: What are you fighting for? When you close your eyes and you think about your children and their children and all of our kin and everybody's, as black people especially, what does that future look like?

Abdullah: What I see when I close my eyes is sunshine, is children's laughter, the freedom for our children to be creative, people just living in abundance, rather than feeling like we have to live in a space of scarcity. I think about the freedom to not have to march.

I get a lot of fulfillment around doing this work because I believe I'm called to do it. But I would also rather be cooking. I would also rather be, you know, cuddled up with my son. I would also rather be gardening. And I think about that when freedom comes, and it will, that we'll have the time and space to do all of those things.

Lee: Melina, that is a beautiful vision. And it's a world that I hope to one day live in. Thank you, Melina Abdullah. We really appreciate it.

Abdullah: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Lee: Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee.

And next week, some exciting news. We are shifting to a new schedule to make sure we are responding to this moment and that we are there for you, covering the stories that help us better understand each other and our country. You can catch Into America in your feeds every Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday. See you next week.