Four members of the LA City Council find it difficult to explain why they voted for both more policing and less policing at the same time.
While Councilmembers Curren Price, Nithya Raman, Heather Hutt, and Hugo Soto-Martinez of the LA City Council said LAPD’s acquisition of a robot dog would be “an expansion of the current boundaries around policing and surveillance” and “used to police Black and Brown communities,” they struggled to explain how their sign-off on an increased police budget wouldn’t cause exactly those same harms to the communities they represent.
Three years and a day after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, and prompted millions of Americans to flood the streets and demand better of our public servants, the City of Los Angeles approved a new annual budget dedicating approximately a quarter of its total to the Los Angeles Police Department.
Passed on a 13-1 vote by the LA City Council, and signed into law by Mayor Karen Bass on May 26, the 23-24 LA city budget allocates approximately $3.28 billion to LAPD expenses out of a more than $13 billion total, according to the city controller’s office. Of the 15-member City Council, only Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez voted against the budget. (The Valley’s Council District 6 is currently without a representative, pending a special election on June 27.)
But on another high-profile city council vote about policing the next week, the 13-person voting block who signed off on the budget shrank considerably. Four councilmembers who voted “yes” on the overall budget said they were concerned about how a nearly $300,000 four-legged robot “dog,” donated by the Los Angeles Police Foundation (LAPF) for use by the LAPD’s Metropolitan Division, would contribute to over-policing.
Voting against adding the robot to LAPD’s roster were four Councilmembers who had just days prior voted for the budget: Curren Price, Nithya Raman, Heather Hutt, and Hugo Soto-Martinez. (Absent from the vote were Councilmembers Hernandez and Marqueece Harris-Dawson.)
Even with their opposition, the vote still passed 8-4 in favor.
In a public comment filed to the council, Erica Webster expressed that donations to LAPD from the LAPF like the robot can become permanent line items in future police budgets, and require further city resources to operate.
“The donations provided permanent footholds in the ever-expanding LAPD budget,” wrote Webster. “If LAPF wants to give resources to the City of LA that reduces crime, they can donate the $278,000 to youth development and poverty alleviation programs.”
Los Angeles Public Press followed up with the four councilmembers, and asked them directly to explain the reasoning behind voting no on the robot dog, but yes on a budget that includes continued resources for substantial police activity in the City of LA.
Councilmember Soto-Martinez attributed his yes-vote on the budget because he and his office were able to “shift around” funding that they feared would be reversed should they not vote yes.
“By not engaging in the process, we could’ve lost those hundreds of millions of dollars in wins,” wrote Soto-Martinez. “The robot dog vote was much more straightforward. It represents an expansion of the current boundaries around policing and surveillance, setting a dangerous precedent for our future. That is not the vision for public safety that I believe Los Angeles should have.”
Councilmember Raman responded only about the robot, writing via spokesperson: “At a time when we’re trying to battle mistrust of city institutions, this does not feel like a moment where we invest in technology that has fomented real distrust in other cities where it has been utilized.”
Councilmember Hutt said she voted against the robot because “research and evidence has already shown that it would predominantly be in marginalized communities and communities of color, possibly putting the harm of our constituents at risk.”
On the budget, Hutt described the approved budget as a “shared commitment” among the City Council and the Mayor to make Los Angeles a more fair and equitable city.
“The Budget gives funding to a broad scope of needed resources and initiatives for the people in our City. I worked to consider every single person when making this decision, and am excited to work with Mayor Bass in giving our community the City they deserve, while addressing the current issues we’re facing such as homelessness, traffic safety, public safety, and the list goes on,” wrote Hutt via a spokesperson.
Neither Hutt nor Raman responded to a follow-up question about how research and evidence shows policing foments real distrust in Los Angeles.
As for Councilmember Curren Price, a spokesperson wrote that Price “continues to be distrusting of LAPD’s protocols in light of the mishandling of the 27th Street fireworks explosion in District 9, which our community continues to reel from. He was concerned at how the use of the robot-dog would evolve, including being armed or used to police Black and Brown communities.”
In regard to the budget, the spokesperson wrote that Price, who was criminally charged on Tuesday, “supports the Mayor, her budget and her priorities,” and that “he wants to give her strategy a fair chance.”
Mohammad Tajsar, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, wrote in public comment that further investment in police surveillance comes at a significant cost to Angeleno privacy.
“Instead of consistently funding LAPD’s adventures in surveillance technology, this Council should stop investing in failed policing strategies and instead fund affirmative, supportive, and well-researched alternatives to surveillance in order to actually improve public safety in the City—alternatives that do not involve funding the LAPD,” wrote Tajsar.