By Jeff Schwartz
It has been ten years since the vigilante murder of Trayvon Martin inspired the Black Lives Matter Movement and three and a half years since the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and numerous others brought hundreds of thousands of Americans of all backgrounds into the streets to demand change.
Since then, some excellent books have been published and widely read, by authors like Mariame Kaba, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Heather McGhee, Michelle Alexander, Isabel Wilkerson, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Penil Joseph, and Eddie Glaude, to name a few. Many of us have learned the difference between equity and equality and have attempted to check our privilege. Organizations have committed to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs and anti-bias training.
However, the core demand of the movement, to rethink and reduce policing and incarceration, has not been met. A handful of so-called bad apples, such as the officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck until he was dead, have been convicted and jailed, but systemic change has been delayed or superficial. Meanwhile, police budgets continue to grow, as does the deployment of dystopian surveillance and military technologies, such as automated license plate readers and robot “dogs.”
On November 7, 2023, Culver City released a detailed plan to reimagine public safety, one of the most substantial public documents to come out of the 2020 reckoning. Culver City is a small independent city in West Los Angeles. Despite being a center of filmmaking since the dawn of the industry, Culver City has long been the least chic of the Westside independent cities, lacking the glamor and cachet of Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, and West Hollywood. It also has been known as a police force so racist that, in 1994, they hired one of the officers LAPD had fired for beating Rodney King. In 2023, the Culver City Police Department (CCPD) still ranks among the most biased departments in the state according to the California Attorney General’s Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board.
In 2020 Culver City was at the start of updating its entire General Plan. General Plans are required to include a Public Safety element, but these traditionally only address disaster preparedness. However, as part of their response to that year’s mass social justice movement, the City Council agreed to expand their General Plan update process to include an advisory committee on “Rethinking Public Safety.” I was appointed to that committee, along with psychiatrist Ippolytos Kalofonos, filmmaker Joy Kecken, MacArthur Fellow Kelly Lytle-Hernandez, police officer London McBride, attorney Mark Rosenfeld, and law professor Noah Zatz. Our discussions were intense, and packed with extensive research and personal stories.
I was disappointed when the public draft of the General Plan was released on September 29, 2023, and the only trace of our work was a single paragraph on page 17. Our full report appeared on November 7, but only as an attachment to the agenda for the November 13 City Council meeting. I am very proud of what we did and am especially grateful to the staff at Raimi and Associates who did an excellent job of recording, organizing, and documenting our work.
The draft of the Rethinking Public Safety element acknowledges the role of police in enforcing a racial caste system and the costs of mass incarceration to communities. It surveys other City and regional agencies that can address social problems in place of police and establishes a regular process to audit police duties so they can be assigned elsewhere.
It recognizes both that many crimes are driven by desperation and that it is more humane and effective to provide for basic human needs than to punish those who find no legal means to meet them, and also that victims of crimes are poorly served by the current system, seldom receiving any restorative services. It calls for civilian oversight of the CCPD, for rewriting police policies to prioritize the protection of civilian lives, and for increasing transparency and accountability at every level. It also sets a target police budget of no more than half of what the City spends on all other public safety programs combined.
This is a landmark work, charting a municipal roadmap to non-police solutions to social problems such as homelessness, traffic safety, substance abuse, domestic violence, school discipline, shoplifting, and mental illness.
The Rethinking Public Safety report was not included in the draft General Plan Update because, in 2022, the composition of the Culver City Council changed from a progressive majority to a conservative one, due in part to massive campaign spending by billionaire Michael Hackman, the owner and developer of the Culver Studios, the Culver Steps, CBS Television City on Fairfax, and many other properties. City staff accommodated this new orientation by releasing the Rethinking Public Safety report separately and recommending the council not approve it because there was not enough community engagement and because police were not involved.
Staff gave no substantive criticism of the report, and the procedural arguments are in bad faith. This element had exactly as much community engagement as the rest of the General Plan. Raimi and Associates conducted a poll on policing, a level of original research beyond what they did on other topics. The City had also commissioned two studies of policing in Culver City in 2020: one by the Center for Public Safety Management and one by Solidarity Consulting, and there were additional current publications by UCLA’s law school on CCPD pay and by the Million Dollar Hoods project on the demographics of CCPD arrests. We had an exceptional body of up-to-date information to work from. All our meetings were open to the public; police could have attended if they wished. There was even a police officer on our committee (albeit a non-CCPD one). It was also clearly stated that the consultants and City Planning staff would be our liaisons to other City departments, rather than assorted staff, such as police, speaking directly to us.
On November 13, the conservative city council majority of Dan O’Brien, Göran Eriksson, and Albert Vera Jr. will use these excuses to reject the draft or to launch a process which will delay and distort it, but the draft is out there. Read it, and download and save a copy in case they take it down. This exists. It is a letter to the future.
Jeff Schwartz is a librarian, author, musician, and the current President of the Culver City Democratic Club, Culver City’s oldest and largest political organization.
Photo by hapabapa