Let’s work on smarter, better approaches to keeping our neighborhoods safe

By Councilmember Mike Bonin

Mike Bonin represents the 11th District for the City of Los Angeles

The author represents the Westside on the Los Angeles City Council.

What is the best way to keep our neighborhoods safe? For decades, conventional wisdom said the answer was to hire more police officers. And that’s what we did — even if it meant cutting everything else in the budget, and even if it didn’t make everyone — particularly African Americans — feel safe.

Across the country and here in Los Angeles, we are waking up to a better, smarter approach, one that asks not “how many more cops do we need?” but “what is the best way to provide public safety, public health and emergency response?”

If we were going to design a public safety system from scratch, very few people would say that the appropriate and necessary response to mental health crises, traffic collisions, or reports of loud parties should be armed agents with the authority to use deadly force. But that’s exactly the system we have in Los Angeles, where residents call the same agency for off-leash dogs as they do for homicides.

That doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense if you’re the victim of a violent crime and are angry that an overburdened LAPD took so long to respond to your 911 call. It doesn’t make sense if you have a family member suffering a mental health episode and you’re afraid an armed response will escalate the situation, with violent results. And it doesn’t make sense if you’re a young Black man who has been pulled over in traffic stops more times than you can count, fearful for your life each time.

Westsiders agree we need a smarter, more thoughtful approach to neighborhood safety. In a recent online survey I conducted, it was clear that my constituents strongly favor narrowing the scope of LAPD responsibilities. While a majority of the 2,672 respondents favor an LAPD response to violent crimes and to property crimes in progress, residents overwhelmingly prefer non-LAPD responses to most other situations for which police officers are routinely called.

Instead of a police response, neighbors say mental health professionals should be called on to respond to mental health episodes, social workers should respond to calls about homelessness and homeless encampments, trained mediators or unarmed security should respond to neighborhood disputes, and volunteers or trained civilians should enforce social distancing and public health rules. By large margins, respondents say they prefer police officers not be responsible for crowd control at large public events, and they also reject an armed presence at parks, in schools, or on public transit.

The Black Lives Matter movement and people all over Los Angeles and the Westside demand — appropriately — that we reimagine public safety. So do the fiscal constraints of the city budget in this recession. Unless we do things differently, an expanding police budget will necessitate deep cuts in the services Angeleno demand (emergency preparedness, street resurfacing, parks, traffic lights) and the programs Angelenos need to survive this pandemic (senior meal programs, renter’s assistance, small business support.)

The city’s traditional approach of cutting neighborhood services, increasing police budgets, and relying on a police solution to every problem is broken and is causing harm. The people of Los Angeles are way ahead of city government in reimagining public safety. They want alternatives that resolve conflicts, address the root causes of problems, and deconstruct systemic racism. We are in a rare moment when we can look clearly at our budget and decide to provide more and better public safety, public health and emergency response by spending more on people and neighborhoods and less on LAPD and an armed response to every situation. We need a more tailored approach, with LAPD responding to violent or major crime, and more appropriate agencies or personnel handling (and perhaps even preventing) most other problems.

That’s why I am supporting a different approach. I am pushing the city to move programs and funding to a new emergency-response model that uses trained specialists, rather than LAPD officers, to respond to many types of calls. I’m advocating for investments in conflict resolution, violence prevention, and youth opportunity programs. I’m calling for replacing armed officers on public transit, and I am exploring how we can move more LAPD functions, like traffic control, to other agencies.

Only rarely do cascading events shake us so hard that we look at things from a fundamentally different perspective, challenge the way we do things, and force us to do the difficult and messy work of forging something better. The COVID-19 pandemic, the crashing economy, and a national moment of awakening to systemic racism are forcing us to rethink many things about how we function as a city, a nation and a society. This moment demands that we imagine and create a better, smarter way to make our neighborhoods safe for everyone.