L.A. mayor’s race: Bass, Caruso on public safety and policing

On a campaign stop last spring in the San Fernando Valley, billionaire developer and Los Angeles mayoral candidate Rick Caruso was flanked by a who’s who of old-school heavyweights from the Los Angeles Police Department.

Former Chiefs William J. Bratton and Charlie Beck — joined by Jim McDonnell, an LAPD veteran who later became Los Angeles County sheriff — were there to send a message, one that’s a bedrock of the campaign: Only a tough-minded leader can clean up the city and get crime under control — and Caruso is that man.

Former LAPD chief William Bratton speaks as Rick Caruso sits behind

Former LAPD Chief William Bratton addresses attendees of a Rick Caruso campaign event in Encino.

(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

The sight of Caruso next to the law enforcement notables further cemented the image of him as a law-and-order candidate and a world apart from his opponent in the race for mayor, the more progressive Rep. Karen Bass, who has sought to strike a balance between increasing safety and implementing criminal justice reforms. But while Bass and Caruso have offered different visions on crime, public safety and policing, in some ways they are not as far apart as they appear.

Both candidates have consistently rebuffed calls from some residents, politicians and far-left activists to cut the Los Angeles Police Department’s roughly $3-billion budget because of what many see as the agency’s historical mistreatment of Black and Latino Angelenos.

Both advocated for hiring more gang intervention workers, as well as investing in certain alternatives to policing, such as sending unarmed professionals to calls involving the mentally ill.

Both called for hiring hundreds more police officers; where they diverge most sharply is just how many the city needs. Caruso, a former president of the civilian Police Commission, has said he wants to expand the LAPD to an all-time high of 11,000 sworn officers. Bass, meanwhile, envisions the department returning to its currently allotted 9,700 by hiring more civilian workers to free officers to return to patrol duties.

At the same time, neither candidate has shown a willingness to “take on the LAPD,” said Greg “Baba” Akili, an anti-police activist.

While he respects Bass’ history of work in some of the city’s most disenfranchised neighborhoods, Akili said her brand of pragmatism seems meant to ease the crime concerns of wealthy, white voters and not to effect real change in law enforcement. He took an even dimmer view of Caruso’s tough-on-crime approach, which he said was based on the discredited premise that petty misconduct leads to more serious lawbreaking.

Los Angeles Mayoral Candidate and Congresswoman Karen Bass

U.S. Rep. Karen Bass on the campaign trail.

(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Like those of her opponent, Bass’ answers to crime problems “are police-centered solutions, they’re not people-centered solutions,” Akili said. “The moment that Black pain is lessened or falls off the front page, is not talked about as fervently, then we go back to [what] we’ve always known.”

Caruso has repeatedly called for a dramatic expansion of the LAPD before the end of his first term, to eventually bring it in line with other big-city departments.

The lofty goal, which has plenty of skeptics, harks back to the freewheeling spending of mayors going back to Richard Riordan, another businessman-turned-mayor who pledged to build a 10,000-officer LAPD before taking office in 1993. Subsequent city leaders ran on similar promises, but the department didn’t reach the 10,000-cop mark until 2013 — the last year of Antonio Villaraigosa’s second term as mayor.

Others question whether the city could afford the tens of millions of dollars such a hiring spree would cost.

Caruso did not respond to interview requests through his spokesman. But his plan describes an administration that would work with state and federal officials “to secure direct funding that will help expand and strengthen our police force, train our officers and increase engagement with the communities they serve.”

Caruso, who routinely attributes violence in the city to a lack of police resources, has been endorsed by the powerful Los Angeles Police Protective League.

Bass’ crime strategy puts emphasis on addressing structural issues and enhancing the economic and social vitality of communities. But it also calls for hiring officers to close a staffing gap created by the departure of hundreds in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, leaving the department with just over 9,200 officers.

To do so, she would immediately begin hiring civilian employees to take over administrative jobs currently held by sworn personnel, “enabling the department to quickly deploy officers to neighborhoods requesting increased police presence,” her plan says.

Her crime strategy also calls for hiring more detectives and investigators, noting that the LAPD solved just over half of the city’s murders in 2020. Bass also underscores the need to recruit more Black officers to replace those who resign or retire.

But even as she has pulled ahead in recent polls, while winning endorsements from Democratic stalwarts such as President Biden, some question Bass’ ability to navigate a world where long-held assumptions about the role of police are being challenged.

Like Caruso, she has repeatedly rejected calls to “defund” the police and argued that she could improve safety while removing abusive officers. Also like her opponent, she has drawn criticism from activists on the left who denounce her approach as part of what they see as a failed carceral posture of past leaders that “centers” law enforcement as the default response to crime.

Bass has defended the centrist approach, saying her plan embraces community-based strategies such as reentry programs for formerly incarcerated youths and adults, along with alternatives to traditional policing. Before entering politics, she founded Community Coalition, a South L.A. nonprofit that pushes for grass-roots change.

“Where we agree is focusing on prevention and intervention. Where we disagree is ‘defund’ and ‘abolition,’ those two words,” she said in a recent interview.

Communities should have a greater say in the level of policing, she added.

“I don’t think police are the sole answer to crime,” she told The Times. “There are affluent neighborhoods that want to see an increased police presence. But I don’t think that South L.A. is clamoring for that.”

Bass said she sees the LAPD as part of the solution to crime, while acknowledging its shortcomings. She vowed to make a priority of addressing police shootings of civilians, which have increased over the last three years after reaching a 30-year low in 2019. To increase oversight, she proposed revisiting Charter Amendment C, a measure passed in 2017 that gave officers facing serious discipline the choice of appearing before an all-civilian panel or the traditional one made up of two officers and one civilian.

A report by the LAPD’s inspector general found that in the most serious cases of misconduct, the all-civilian panels frequently overturned Chief Michel Moore’s recommendation of termination. Bass said she’s exploring taking the amendment back to voters.

The surge in violent crime that has accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic in many major U.S. cities over the last two years has plateaued in Los Angeles, police statistics show. The city this year has logged 320 homicides, seven fewer than it had at this time in 2021, which ended with a 15-year high. The number of shootings remains virtually unchanged, although the number of robberies involving armed suspects has increased sharply.

While crime rates are a far cry from those of the early 1990s, anxiety around safety has emerged as a key issue in the race for the city’s top office.

Bass, a nurse by trade and former community organizer, has pushed for a public health response to violence, her supporters say. Earlier this year, she released a plan that includes the establishment of a community safety office under the mayor’s purview.

In campaign ads, Caruso has painted the city in dystopian terms, echoing his tough talk on crime from his days on the Police Commission, when he compared gangs to terrorists.

Caruso has called for an aggressive crackdown on gun trafficking and the manufacturing of “ghost guns” by expanding the LAPD’s Gun Unit and pressing for more coordination with federal law enforcement partners such as the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

His plan calls for embracing “precision policing” tactics utilized in New York that focus law enforcement attention on the statistically small group of individuals who are responsible for the majority of violent crime. He also wants prosecutors — over whom the mayor has no control — to bring more cases against misdemeanor offenders.

That approach has drawn a wary reaction from some who see it as a return to the “broken-windows” style of policing championed by former Chief Bratton — whom Caruso helped bring to Los Angeles — which stresses tougher enforcement and prosecution of small-scale crimes as a way of cutting down on blight that could invite violence in troubled areas. The LAPD has in recent years largely backed away from that approach.

Caruso has claimed he had an outsize role in the operation of the department during his time with the commission, including hiring Bratton, adopting reforms to correct civil rights abuses and improving public perceptions of the LAPD.

Beck, another former chief, credited Caruso with helping steady the department in the wake of the Rampart corruption scandal and lauded him as a “doer” with a track record of success — a must for any leader taking on the vast bureaucratic machine that is City Hall.

Bass’ more moderate approach can come across as indecisiveness, Beck said. He added that during Bass’ time in the state Assembly, which overlapped with his tenure as chief, she “never called me once” and otherwise showed little interest in public safety.

Aside from helping to set the LAPD’s budget, the choice of police chief is among the most consequential decisions an incoming mayor makes.

Bass said her vision for accountability and transparency starts at the top with Moore, whom she has known for years and with whom she worked as a member of Congress on the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The sweeping reform bill, which stalled in the Senate, would have pushed law enforcement agencies to ban chokeholds and “no-knock” warrants or risk losing certain federal funds.

“I wouldn’t walk into the office and fire the chief,” she said of Moore, whose five-year term will expire next year. “I have to deal with the emergency at hand. I will give him a fair evaluation and make the decision when it’s time.”

Caruso also demurred when asked this month during a radio debate to rate Moore’s performance.

“I don’t think Michel’s had the opportunity under this mayor to do his job,” Caruso said. “When I’m mayor, I’ll give him the opportunity to do his job; then we’ll see, and then we’ll judge him.”

With election day less than two weeks away, public safety remains top of mind for many voters.

Tanya Dorsey said she believes Caruso’s independent wealth might insulate him from the influence of special interests. But she’s leaning toward Bass, a fellow Black woman, who seems more attuned to challenges facing average Angelenos like the residents at the Nickerson Gardens housing project where Dorsey works.

“I hope [whoever wins the election is] more focused on what the community has to say about the police,” said Dorsey, who runs an outreach organization called Watts Community Core that distributes school materials and meals to underprivileged residents. “And also to get their take on what’s actually being done in the ’hood.”

A more nuanced approach to crime, its causes and possible solutions is a must for anyone who ends up in the mayor’s office, according to Kahllid Al-Alim of the advocacy group Students Deserve, which has worked to remove resource officers from campuses. In this, he said, Bass has a clear advantage over Caruso, given her public health approach to violence.

“Some of the platform that [Caruso] speaks to is more of a criminalization and more of a status quo,” said Al-Alim.

But Caruso’s anti-crime message resonates with other voters, such as Margarita Amador, 51, a lifelong resident of Boyle Heights who works for the Los Angeles Unified School District. Despite Bass’ insistence that she doesn’t support defunding the LAPD, Amador said Caruso has shown more support of law enforcement — and thus, in her mind, seems more likely to take crime in her neighborhood seriously.

“He genuinely is like me: He’s tired of seeing our city looking like a Third World country with crime,” she said. “If it continues, we’re going to be the next Chicago.”

Staff writers Benjamin Oreskes and David Zahniser contributed to this report.

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-10-26/bass-and-caruso-differ-on-public-safety-and-policing-but-not-as-much-as-many-people-think L.A. mayor’s race: Bass, Caruso on public safety and policing

Alley Einstein

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