The Profound Failure of Culver City’s Public Safety Review

We reject the City Manager’s report for the Public Safety Review task force. It is an insult to the people of Culver City, and to the City Council, and a profound blow to the credibility of City government. We reject it not because of the answers it provides but because of the questions it refuses to ask, the very questions that it was specifically charged with addressing. Tasked with presenting options including reallocating up to 50% of CCPD budget to alternative public safety approaches, the task force came up with 1.6% in accounting gimmicks with no practical significance. Shockingly, nearly four months after this began, we still have not been told the most basic information about how police spend their time, something that should have been the starting point of analysis months ago. Faced with the Task Force’s abject failure, we call on the City Council to simply reject the report rather than get sucked into a salvage effort or face-saving half-measures. At this point, it will have to be the next Council that grapples with these issues. In the meantime, the data the community needs for an informed discussion should be released.

We begin where this began, with the public torture and murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in broad daylight, in public, and accompanied by several other officers who failed to intervene. All because of a supposed counterfeit $20. With the murder of Ahmaud Arbery by white homeowners who assumed he was a criminal because he was a jogging through their “oasis” of a white neighborhood. With the murder of Breonna Taylor by police in an operation that privileged a drug enforcement operation to gentrify a neighborhood for developers over the obvious risks to Black life of a heavily armed no-knock nighttime raid.  With the murder of Eric Garner, stopped for selling cigarettes unlicensed. With Sandra Bland, dead as a result of a stop for allegedly failing to signal a lane change. With Philando Castille and a broken taillight.

And these are just a few of the deaths. The conventional practice of policing is a daily threat to the dignity, the freedom, and, yes, the lives of Black community members specifically and BIPOC people more generally. The Black Lives Matter movement’s call to defund police and reimagine public safety is a call to eliminate police-civilian encounters that unnecessarily risk harm, or even death, and to redesign community institutions to address the situations that today trigger armed response with prevention and care.

Heeding this call, four of five Councilmembers expressly embraced the project of reimagining public safety by shifting substantial public safety functions away from armed police. There was broad consensus in principle about structural change in response to houseless people in public, people in mental health crisis, neighbor disputes, welfare checks, traffic enforcement, and similar matters that typically do not involve an imminent threat of violence.

Of course, actual institutional change requires much more detail and planning, and so a Task Force was created to begin that process: a process of structural change. The exact budget implications could not be known without a clearer understanding of the mix of situations to which police respond, the amount of personnel and time spent on them, and the structure and cost of alternative responses. Similarly, institutional change is disruptive, and so analysis is necessary of the pace of change, including mechanisms that can respect the interests of incumbent workers without simply granting a permanent entitlement to perpetuate the status quo.

Accordingly, the task force was to start answering those questions. In order to ensure accountability and avoid the risks of bureaucratic inertia and backsliding, the Council imposed—at our urging—a tight timeline, a demand for actionable steps, and a benchmark that conveyed the scale of change necessary: options that went as far as reallocating 50% of CCPD resources, obviously not immediately, but over a planned process. The Council did not commit to adopting any particular changes, but it directed that it be provided with options, even reaffirming that direction with regard to the 50% option after the first signs of backsliding by the City Manager.

But in the end, the Task Force failed to carry to out its mandate. We understand that there has been tremendous pressure from the police union, including not only public intimidation of those advocating change but also threats of the “blue flu” if changes are made. Unsurprisingly, the PD itself would prefer to maintain its power and budget. We understand that many members of the community who wish that a different Council had been elected in 2018 object to the decisions made by the Council that was elected. But these are illegitimate reasons to not follow through. If, instead, Council members signalled in private that the Task Force needn’t do what they called for in public, then that would be an even more fundamental betrayal of our little democracy. Either way, it is a heavy blow to confidence in the integrity of City government.

The most basic data about what the police do has not been produced in this report, let alone early in the process where it could have guided the inquiry. There is no data on 911 dispatches and other calls for service, which in other jurisdictions have consistently been found to involve violent crime no more than 10% of the time. There is no data about the volume of traffic stops that don’t lead to arrest or citation.

Meanwhile, the CCPD suddenly undertook a PR campaign of push-text announcements of nearly every violent incident in Culver City, a radical departure from past reporting practice transparently aimed at scaring the community and warping its understanding of police activity. More recently, the police union CCPOA has followed suit, complementing its campaign of intimidation against its critics with fear-mongering electioneering and shocking  personal attacks on local activists and political candidates. All this is premised on the false notion that cutbacks in policing overall necessarily imply reduced capacity to address violent crime. But the Task Force has deprived the public of the data and analysis that would make this clear, thereby by giving aid and comfort to the campaign against change.

Indeed, the only useful new information about CCPD has come from outside sources. This includes the UCLA Million Dollar Hoods analysis of arrest data demonstrating massive racial disparities in arrests, including after correcting for city of residence, and the concentration of these arrests and disparities in low-level offenses. In contrast, the City Manager’s report utterly fails to grapple with questions of institutional and systemic racism, constantly calls into doubt community members’ testimony to mistreatment by labelling it “perceived,” and astonishingly suggests that race equity issues are reducible to questions of individual disparate treatment by officers to be remedied with colorblindness.

Similarly, the only useful information about CCPD labor costs has come from UCLA Law School’s Criminal Justice Program. Its report showed that, notwithstanding a salary ordinance designed to maintain parity between CCPD salaries and LAPD and LASD, various collectively bargained add-ons massively inflate CCPD pay relative to that benchmark. There has been zero analysis from the task force of how to manage a potential transition to a smaller sworn police force. Such an analysis that would require studying attrition rates, expected retirement horizons, the potential influence of buyouts, the use of furloughs rather than layoffs, and so on. Nothing.  

And, most obviously and defiantly, the City Manager simply refused to provide anything remotely like the 50% reduction scenario that he was twice directed to produce. Nor 40%. Nor 30%. Nor 20%. There was no explanation, no deferral to a subsequent but defined process, no articulation of the need for a lengthy timeline or slow transition. There was no presentation of a good-faith option with a recommendation that, on balance, it not be adopted. Instead, nothing. Just bald-faced refusal. This is utterly shameful and represents a fundamental breakdown in accountability.  

With an election already underway, it is too late to repair the damage to this Council’s ability to act. Accordingly, it should simply acknowledge the Task Force’s failure and pass the issue to the next Council, whose composition obviously will shape the direction to be taken. In the meantime, however, this Council should demand the immediate release of the maximum amount of information and analysis about policing practices gathered by CPSM. This includes not only CPSM’s own analysis but the underlying data so that it can be independently re-analyzed. This is particularly important because, astonishingly, CPSM has made clear in its public presentations that it does not view its job as analyzing pathways to reimagine public safety, but rather as analyzing the efficiency with which CCPD engages in conventional policing.

Although we hesitate to dignify this report with any engagement on its specifics, we append below observations about the inadequacy of its particular recommendations. The pattern throughout is the avoidance of anything that would actually reduce reliance on armed police response – the very premise of the enterprise.

Proposed Budget Changes

  • The only new budget reductions the report proposes amount to 2.7% of CCPD budget. These would be achieved by transferring non-sworn parking, animal services, and crossing guard personnel to other departments. In addition to being tiny, these changes have zero effect on the nature and extent of policing.
  • Even these miniscule budget reductions are then substantially offset by the proposal to spend an additional $500,000 to staff up the City jail. The result is a net reduction of just 1.6% of budget. As discussed previously, the necessary changes to reverse the PD’s years of neglect of detainee safety should come out of existing operations. Instead, these changes are designed to free up officers for additional patrol, the very opposite of what this process is supposed to achieve.
  • The report attempts to double-count the reductions to the PD budget that were proposed this spring in response to the City-wide pandemic fiscal crisis. Those 6% reductions to CCPD budget were substantially lower than other departments, causing the PD’s share of budget to increase. They had already been agreed to at the time the Task Force was formed.

Pilot: Adult pre-booking diversion program

As presented, this pilot program is designed to have no effect on policing. As a “pre-booking” program, it anticipates the same number of front-line police encounters and simply gives another option for what to do with people they have taken into custody. It also is explicitly tied to the availability of outside funding, yet another indication that diversion of resources from policing is not  on the table. As the task force’s equity consultant Saul Sarabia notes in his report, best practices in diversion involve avoiding police response–and the attendant opportunities for harassment or violence–in the first place.

Pilot: Fire Department mental health team

As presented, this pilot program again appears designed to have no effect on policing. Unlike the CAHOOTS model that has been extensively discussed, it does not divert  from armed police response to 911 or other calls for service. The pilot is explicitly framed as a “supplement” to existing policing. It is also puzzling why this would be located in the Fire Department, rather than building capacity for mental health and social services in PRCS. Again, the invocation of outside grant funding indicates an intent to avoid diverting resources away from armed policing.

Pilot: Restorative Practices Program

This program is again specifically proposed to extend a diversion program controlled by the CCPD itself. Best practices in youth diversion remove law enforcement from the process as much as possible.

Pilot: Minimize Traffic Citations

This proposal focuses exclusively on “fix-it ticket” citation practices after police stops. In other words, police patrol and responsibility for traffic enforcement are, again, unchanged. If this practice had been in place in St. Anthony, MN, Philando Castile still would have been shot and killed during the traffic stop for a broken taillight. The report produces zero data about existing citation practices, about what proportion of them would be affected, and about the practical feasibility of drivers curing the violations, especially for violations rooted in poverty like an inability to pay fines & fees from prior police stops. 

Insurance Considerations

This extraordinary section attempts to cut off discussion of reimagining public safety with ungrounded speculation about potential insurance and liability implications. It fails to acknowledge that status quo policing already exposes the City to substantial liability, as represented by the approximately $8 million in fifteen different settlements of lawsuits over police abuse that it has paid out over the past decade or so. 

There is zero analysis, or supporting documentation, of the idea the City could face liability for changes in 911 dispatch procedures. For instance, you wouldn’t know from the staff report that California courts have specifically rejected holding cities liable based on a “dispatcher’s failure or delay in responding to a 911 call” (Eastburn v. Reg’l Fire Prot. Auth., 31 Cal. 4th 1175, 1178, (2003)) and have also refused to  “impose liability based on the negligence by police personnel in responding to requests for assistance” (M.B. v. City of San Diego, 233 Cal. App. 3d 699, 705 (Ct. App. 1991)). Nor would you know that California Government Code 845 specifically protects localities from liability for reasons like those raised. “[Section 845] grants a general immunity for failure to provide police protection or for failure to provide enough police protection. Whether police protection should be provided at all, and the extent to which it should be provided, are political decisions which are committed to the policy-making officials of government. To permit review of these decisions by judges and juries would remove the ultimate decision-making authority from those politically responsible for making the decision.” (Lopez v. Southern Cal. Rapid Transit Dist. (1985) 40 Cal.3d 780, 792). No doubt there may be more to the story, but the staff report does not provide it.

The speculation about “appropriate police staffing to respond to 911 calls” also is ungrounded in any analysis of the staffing implications of various changes. For instance, if a significant number of 911 calls are diverted to other responders, it would seem to follow that CCPD staffing could be reduced without any reduction in the per-call personnel available or in response time. These are the kinds of questions that the Task Force should have analyzed itself. Instead, having failed to do so, it simply passes on unchallenged speculation that appears to assume across-the-board cuts in police staffing without accompanying restructuring of public safety response. This is the libel offered by those who refuse to consider reimagining public safety, not the constructive, evidence-based investigation that the Council directed but was not carried out.

The report also claims broadly that “the insurance industry is not comfortable with non-sworn personnel responding to 911 calls.” Again, unproven, ungrounded, but very convenient. Has anyone attempted to get them comfortable? Has Eugene, OR been unable to buy insurance because of its extensive diversion of 911 calls to non-sworn personnel? How has Denver approached this problem with its own recent embrace of non-sworn response? The report is looking for excuses to do nothing, not trying to tackle and solve problems.