LOS ANGELES – Helen Jones grew up in Watts in a time of gang wars and a crack epidemic, when police used battering rams to knock down the walls of suspected drug houses and Black people were routinely profiled or beaten by street cops.
Then and now, her life has been shaped by violence: Last spring, after the city shut down to contain the coronavirus pandemic, her nephew was shot dead in his home; the year before, her brother was shot in the back on a South Los Angeles street and lived; and in 2009, her son died in a downtown jail in what authorities called a suicide but she believes was a murder by sheriff’s deputies.
Last year, Jones’ demands for fewer police officers and more investment in communities like hers became the demands of a movement – after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis shook the country, inspired the largest mass demonstrations for civil rights in generations and pushed police reform to the forefront of the national agenda.
Now, a year after Floyd’s death, Los Angeles and other US cities face a surge in violent crime amid pandemic despair and a flood of new guns onto the streets. The surge is prompting cities whose leaders embraced the values of the movement last year to reassess how far they are willing to go to re-imagine public safety and divert money away from the police and toward social services.
“I don’t care how bad it gets – no one wants more cops,” Jones, 56, said last week as she met with other activists outside a food hall in South Los Angeles. “We don’t need tougher police, we need more alternatives to help people thrive.”
But more cops is what Los Angeles is getting.
A year after streets echoed with calls to “defund” law enforcement and city leaders embraced the message by agreeing to take $150 million away from the Los Angeles Police Department, or about 8% of the department’s budget, the city last week agreed to increase the police budget to allow the department to hire about 250 officers. The increase essentially restores the cuts that followed the protests.
On the streets of South Los Angeles, where residents have historically suffered the most from aggressive policing and gang violence and where much of the current surge in shootings is happening, officers are ramping up patrols and stopping more cars to look for guns.
All of this is necessary, some city leaders believe, because violent crime is up sharply – last year murders were up 36% in Los Angeles – and the city is awash in new guns.
“We’ve lost more than a decade of progress,” Chief Michel Moore of the Los Angeles Police Department said in an interview, referring to the significant drops in crime in the years before the pandemic.
“I won’t argue that there is substandard housing, education, broken families, substance abuse, the systems that are racist and have systemic issues that have gone on for generations,” he said, when asked about the demands of protesters. “But the fix of that is not to eliminate policing.”
It is a trend mirrored across the country, where crime is skyrocketing in many big cities, putting liberal leaders under pressure to balance the demands of activists against the concerns of some residents about rising violence. In New York, where homicides grew by nearly 45% last year, crime is dominating the discussion in the race for mayor. Last week in Philadelphia, where crime is up sharply, Democratic primary voters overwhelmingly backed the city’s progressive district attorney, despite opposition from police unions. Even smaller cities haven’t been spared the rise in violence: Louisville, Kentucky, last year set a record for homicides, with 173, and this year is on pace to surpass that.
Criminologists and law enforcement leaders largely blame the rise in violence on two things: a historic increase in gun-buying by Americans, with a flood of illegal, so-called ghost guns, often assembled with parts bought online and are untraceable, and the despair and economic devastation of the pandemic. Still, while the number of murders in Los Angeles last year – 350 – was the highest in more than a decade, it was nowhere near the number of killings in the early 1990s, when more than 1,000 people were killed in a year. And other crimes, such as rape and burglary, are down so far this year compared with numbers from last year.
And even as the politics shifts a year after the unrest, activists and the ordinary citizens who joined them on the streets can claim a number of wins: Los Angeles officials diverted $150 million from the police budget last year to study alternatives to traditional policing. Voters also elected a new district attorney who promised to prosecute officers and send fewer people to prison, and approved a measure to spend millions of dollars a year on alternatives to incarceration and more social services.
In some liberal cities like Minneapolis, where gun violence is surging and where the Police Department is depleted after so many officers quit or retired, some elected leaders and older clergy members and civil rights leaders are echoing the sentiments of conservative commentators who claim a link between the violence and the movement to defund police departments, saying officers are demoralized and pulling back on patrolling high-crime areas.
In Los Angeles, Moore said that officers were not disengaging – pointing to sharp increases this year in gun and gang-related arrests – but that “emotionally, they are beat up – they feel like they have been vilified and victimized for the wrongful criminal acts of a few.”
‘Stop and frisk in a car’
Activists worry the rise in gun violence has already become a roadblock to re-imagining public safety, as Los Angeles leaders backtrack from their vows to radically change policing.
This year, the city’s Police Department deployed an elite unit to South Los Angeles to carry out what critics have long said has led to racial inequities and, sometimes, fatal shootings: random vehicle stops in pursuit of guns and suspected gang members.
“It is stop and frisk in a car,” said Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who represents South Los Angeles on the City Council. “They take an area, they decide that this area has a lot of shooting back and forth, they stop everybody, they look in the car for guns.”
The vehicle stops, Harris-Dawson said, are “pretextual,” meaning officers look for minor vehicle infractions like having tinted windows or a busted taillight as a pretext to pull someone over. The strategy may be legal, but it is controversial in minority communities and is a tactic that has led to violent encounters between officers and citizens, including the recent police killing of Daunte Wright in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center.
Demands that cities replace police officers with unarmed civilians and technologies like cameras to enforce traffic violations have been at the center of reform efforts, because many fatal encounters between officers and citizens, especially Black men, begin with a traffic stop.
Moore said the vehicle stops were necessary right now because there were so many guns on the streets, but he emphasized that other strategies – such as working with gang interventionists – were a higher priority. And he said the numbers of stops had relatively been low – 538 so far this year in South Los Angeles, compared with more than 3,700 during the same period in 2019. (Last year the number of vehicle stops were minimal, he said, partly because of the pandemic.)
As a Black man growing up in South Los Angeles, Harris-Dawson said he was routinely pulled over by police, and that didn’t stop even as he rose to power in city politics. One night last year, after attending a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game, he was pulled over in his neighborhood, he said, because police were suspicious of his government license plate.
“The expectation was like, Why is there a government plate in this area? Someone must have made off with a government car,” he said.
Harris-Dawson said that rather than being a pretext for more policing, the rise in crime should intensify efforts only at reform.
“I think it actually increases the urgency of the re-imagining,” said Harris-Dawson, who has supported a plan to stand up unarmed units to respond to mental health crises modeled on a program in Oregon, and sponsored a study to remove police from routine traffic stops. “Because what re-imagining policing says, OK if there are people shooting each other and there are people having mental health crises, what one should the police be doing? Right now they do both.”
1992 and Now
In the decades since Jones grew up on the violent streets of Watts, overall crime has plummeted and relations between police officers and Black and brown communities of South Los Angeles have improved, propelled by reforms introduced in the aftermath of the police beating of Rodney King and the riots of 1992 that it provoked.
Last year, as protests spread across the country, it was common to hear leaders in Los Angeles say that the nation was now going through what the city went through in the 1990s, after not just the King beating but also a corruption scandal known as Rampart and the O.J. Simpson trial, which exposed deep racism within the city’s Police Department.
Many people who began working on these issues almost 30 years ago are still in the field, and there is a stark generational divide now: The younger, Black Lives Matter-inspired activists often speak the language of abolition and defund, rather than partnering with the police.
From the crucible of 1992, former gang members in South Los Angeles worked to make peace, often working alongside a new force of police officers dedicated to “community policing,” in which officers worked in specific neighborhoods to establish close relationships with residents.
Leon Gullette, who was drawn to activism after 1992, now works for Community Build, which was co-founded by Maxine Waters, a local congresswoman. Gullette’s specialty is working to achieve truces between rival gangs.
Unlike the younger activists with Black Lives Matter, he says working with the police is essential. “We can’t operate without the police, so I wouldn’t say defund the police,” Gullette said.
Moore said that 77% of the city’s gun-related homicides these days were gang-related. So Gullette remains busier than ever, but the pandemic has curtailed his work. One of the most important aspects of gang intervention is to go into hospitals to meet victims of gang shootings and gather information, to prevent retaliation. With hospitals off-limits because of the coronavirus, Gullette has had to rely on phone conversations between family members and doctors.
Last month, speaking from the Griffith Observatory, the panorama of the city laid out before him, Mayor Eric Garcetti, in his annual State of the City address, noted the rise in homicides and said, “If you want to abolish the police, you’re talking to the wrong mayor.”
His proposal to increase the police budget has angered activists, but everyone has one shared hope: that as the pandemic recedes, and parks and schools reopen, and gang interventionists can get back to work, that crime numbers will go back down. That would create new space for activists to push for deeper changes in policing.
If the old crop of activists sought changes by partnering with the police, the defining view of the new movement is a focus on money, and trying to pull as many dollars as possible away from police budgets and toward other programs that address systemic racism.
Rev. Najuma Smith-Pollard, who works at the University of Southern California training pastors in community organizing, said, “We have to continue to push the issue on the budget because the budget is a moral document.”
Jones, who works as an organizer for Dignity and Power Now, is in the movement for the long haul, driven by her son’s death in the custody of sheriff’s deputies, for which she has won a $2 million civil settlement and is pushing for criminal charges. Above all, aside from policy wins and losses, she feels that the past year in America has at least shifted the debate.
“A year later, I feel there has been change,” she said. “The change I see is people’s minds being awakened to how Black and brown people have been treated, and to their trauma. And this disregard for human life that Black and brown people experience. A lot of eyes have been opened.”
[This article originally appeared in The New York Times.]