Politics likes to force false choices: Clean environment or a healthy economy? National security or personal privacy? Safe communities or police reform?
That last one – the assumption that police reform and crime reduction are antithetical ideas – is baked into the national debate over the role and oversight of police. As is often the case, it’s being debated in Los Angeles, and the record that’s being made here may guide others.
Take the reappointment of Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore, which the Los Angeles Police Commission unanimously approved last week. Moore is a veteran LAPD officer who served five years as the department’s chief. The strange runup to his reappointment – he submitted his request the day after Christmas and the commission approved it in closed session just over a month later – focused the attention on Moore as a reformer rather than as a crime-fighter.
Under Los Angeles’ charter, amended in the 1990s after the beating of Rodney King and the ensuing riots, the police commission has sole authority to decide whether a chief deserves a second term. Moreover, the commission can make that decision on any grounds it chooses. The commission’s statement announcing its decision praised Moore for his ability “to institute cutting edge reforms.” It did not mention crime at all.
Mayor Karen Bass supported that move, and similarly highlighted internal improvements as the chief’s most important mission, writing that Moore’s main job will be “continuing and expanding police reform, including improving the response involving those experiencing a mental health crisis.”
This even shaped news coverage. The Los Angeles Times did not use the word “crime” until the 19th paragraph, and only after considering Moore’s record on police shootings, the response to COVID and the LAPD’s “culture of aggression.”
In interviews, Commission President William J. Briggs II acknowledged the importance of deterring and responding to crime, but stressed that over “the last several decades, the scope of responsibility (of the chief) has grown.”
Commissioner Steve Soboroff went further, suggesting that police departments and their chiefs can’t properly be held accountable for crime. “That’s like saying the president is responsible for the stock market,” he said. Crime, he added, is “just part of an overall ecosystem of issues.”
Fair enough, up to a point: Crime is largely influenced by changing demographics, the drug trade and external forces such as COVID. But public safety isn’t an aside for police; it’s the main event. And there is ample evidence that police can be scrutinized and still be effective against crime.
Through the late 1990s, the city of Los Angeles embarked on an LAPD reform effort that was based on investment, starkly in contrast to this decade’s calls for defunding police. The city spent money to improve its systems for tracking and disciplining police officers. It made it easier to file complaints against officers and equipped supervisors with better tools for identifying officers with poor conduct. The city expanded the LAPD, at last pulling it within sight of fielding 10,000 officers. Prodded by lawsuits and consent decrees, it also diversified those ranks, bringing on more Black, Latino, Asian and female officers.
Crime mattered, too, and those investments yielded powerful results not just in police accountability but in safer communities. In the early 1990s, more than a thousand people were murdered each year in Los Angeles. By 2013, that number had dropped to 251.
The combination of stronger oversight and public investment obviously did not solve all of Los Angeles’ public safety problems. After all, 251 murders are still shocking, and murder represents just a sliver of overall crime. And though the department diversified and humanized in those years, incidents of police misconduct were by no means eliminated.
But there was progress on both fronts – accountability and crime.
Since Moore was appointed in 2017, that progress has slowed. After a decade of holding homicides below 300 per year, that number increased under Moore. In 2021, 397 people were murdered in Los Angeles, far below the totals of the early 1990s, but up markedly (It is also true that last year’s figures for murder and violent crime tapered off from 2021; there were, for instance, 382 homicides in 2022).
The reform mission remains a work in progress, too. A series of in-custody deaths in recent weeks have again raised questions about officers’ conduct, and Moore has faced criticism for not doing more to promote women, among other things. Some of his critics mounted a campaign to reject his request for a second term, banding together under the banner “No More Moore.”
Still, the commission and Bass accepted the argument that Moore can be an effective leader for a reform-oriented department. That conclusion appears to have overcome whatever misgivings they may harbor based on the LAPD’s backsliding on crime. To her credit, Bass listed crime reduction second only to reform in her list outlining goals for Moore’s second term.
Which returns to the initial point: Must the city leadership accept a rise in crime as the price for more progressive policing innovations? The answer is emphatically no. The LAPD’s gains in the 1990s and 2000s demonstrate that reform and crime-fighting reinforce one another. The more recent stumbles raise questions not about the tradeoff but of the effectiveness of those managing the department.
As Bass settles in and appoints commissioners of her own, they will have the job of insisting that Moore and his eventual successor demonstrate not just that they can reform the department but that they can protect the public as well. The LAPD’s job – as is for all California police departments – is to “protect and serve,” not just one or the other.
By Jim Newton
This article was originally published by CalMatters.