L.A. police union spent big in local elections. Some politicians now shun the money

Emily Alpert Reyes
·8 min read
Los Angeles, CA, Tuesday, June 2, 2020 - LAPD officer Decote watches for people tossing debris from tall buildings as dozens of protesters are arrested for curfew violations on Broadway. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)
LAPD officer watches for people tossing debris from tall buildings as dozens of protesters are arrested for curfew violations on Broadway. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times)

It was the morning after Los Angeles Councilwoman Monica Rodriguez and other officials had proposed cutting up to $150 million from the Police Department and she was facing a dismayed crowd at a command post in Panorama City.

One officer said that if the city needed to cut, it should start with protection details at council members' homes. Another accused Rodriguez of "pandering" to protesters and said that if it weren't for the police, the city would have burned down.

"I promise you, this union will go to our grave fighting. ... We're gonna fight," said Jerretta Sandoz, a board member with the Los Angeles Police Protective League.

"At the ballot box," another person chimed in.

The LAPPL, which represents rank-and-file officers, has been a significant force in local elections. In the past decade, the union has given more than $100,000 directly to city candidates. Its independent expenditure committees, which cannot legally be controlled by candidates and do not have the same limits on donations, have spent millions of dollars more.

Now that money is under scrutiny by Angelenos supporting a national movement against police brutality — and some local politicians say they won't accept it anymore. It is the latest sign of the push against longstanding practices at City Hall as Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles and other activist groups have pushed to defund and overhaul the Police Department.

When Rodriguez ran for office three years ago, the LAPPL backed her candidacy with more than $100,000 in mailers and telephone calls. The league also spent more than $220,000 to support Councilman Joe Buscaino when he first ran nine years ago. And when Garcetti first ran for mayor, the union sponsored committees that spent more than $1.5 million backing his opponent. It has successfully pushed to rework officer discipline and advocated for higher pay.

More recently, the LAPPL spent $150,000 to back Councilman John Lee, who narrowly kept his seat earlier this year; gave $50,000 to another committee supporting Councilman Herb Wesson as he campaigns to become a county supervisor; and spent nearly $45,000 in support of Councilman David Ryu, who is facing off against nonprofit leader Nithya Raman.

Raman argued that politicians should disavow such spending, saying that it distorts decisions when every elected official in the city has been bolstered by political donations from the LAPPL.

As protesters have faced batons and other violent tactics, "the reluctance of our local officials to speak out against even clearly documented harms is a sign of the power of the police union," said Raman, who wants to reassess the LAPD budget.

Ryu said Tuesday that he had returned a campaign donation from the LAPPL and was disavowing any future independent spending by the police union on his behalf. The councilman said he had opposed increasing the LAPD budget while other city services were being cut and argued that the city needs to reexamine the use of force.

L.A. also needs "a visionary, long-term plan to replace the use of police officers to address chronic social issues," Ryu said.

Councilman Mike Bonin also said Tuesday that he was rejecting any future contributions from the police union, which has donated directly to the councilman and whose independent committees have spent over $45,000 backing his candidacy.

Bonin, who has raised concerns about police tactics during protests, said he was making a personal donation in the amount he had received directly in the past — more than $4,000 for his campaigns and office holder accounts — to organizations working to oppose racism and reform policing, including Black Lives Matter. He also said he would disavow independent spending by the union.

"Angelenos are demanding a new approach to how we keep our neighborhoods safe, and they want to know that their public representatives are accountable to the people," Bonin said.

And there has been an especially concerted push for elected prosecutors to forgo money from police unions. George Gascón, who is running to unseat Los Angeles County D.A. Jackie Lacey, recently joined other prosecutors in lobbying to prohibit district attorneys from accepting support from police unions, which Gascón said he would no longer do.

Lacey has shunned that idea, arguing that "any proposal that prevents a union from actively engaging their members in the democratic process is an extremely dangerous path to go down."In a statement, she contended that "silencing the voices of labor unions sets a bad precedent" that could hurt unions representing teachers and nurses.

Lee, the councilman representing the northwest San Fernando Valley, said he was honored to have LAPPL support for his campaigns. Wesson said that "direct or independent donations to me or my opponent carry zero weight when I vote."

And City Atty. Mike Feuer, who is running for mayor, "strongly believes any past donations do not in any way undermine his ability to exercise independent judgment with regard to LAPD," his campaign consultant John Shallman said. Such arguments were echoed by council members Rodriguez, Bob Blumenfield, Mitch O'Farrell and Paul Koretz and County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is running for a council seat against attorney Grace Yoo.

LAPPL spokesperson Dustin DeRollo said "there is no expectation or belief that there is a connection between a contribution and an official action," pointing out that Wesson had signed on to the proposal to reduce LAPD funding.

That has not persuaded Wesson's opponent, State Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), whose campaign manager Lenee Richards called Wesson "the candidate of the police unions" and said Mitchell would not accept such donations, stating that "it is time for leadership that is free from corruption and influence."

Progressive activists have also been skeptical. If the spending didn't affect politicians, "it wouldn't be done in the first place," said Chris Roth, an organizer with the activist group Ground Game LA, which wants to cut the police budget.

Roth argued that the political clout of the LAPPL "has basically prevented any discussion about reducing the size of the police budget" until now.

The San Fernando Valley Young Democrats recently made disavowing contributions from law enforcement groups a condition for its endorsement. Swearing off that money "would show Angelenos that these L.A. elected officials are not beholden to police and police unions first and the people second," its legislative director Andrew Lewis said.

Lewis pointed to the budget — which allocates more than half of "unrestricted" revenues in the general fund to the LAPD — as a key indication of how the police union had commanded influence over City Hall. The police union has argued that pay needs to be high enough to prevent the city from losing officers to other agencies.

Wesson, Garcetti and other city officials also championed Charter Amendment C, a successful 2017 ballot measure backed by the police union that allowed disciplinary panels to be made up entirely of civilians. Opponents including BLM and other local activists had opposed the change and argued that civilians tend to be more lenient toward officers.

DeRollo argued that voters value the political voice of police officers. The union has been especially outspoken over the past week: After Garcetti joined the calls to cut police funding and made a remark about "killers" that the union saw as a smear against officers, the LAPPL called him "unstable."

"Eric, do you really believe that Los Angeles police officers are killers?" LAPPL board member Jamie McBride said last week. "The same officers that provide you 24-hour security at your residence 365 days a year?"

Garcetti said his remarks were misconstrued and that he wasn't referring to police. McBride later appeared on a Spectrum News 1 report about police providing security at Council President Nury Martinez's home, calling it a "disgusting" use of taxpayer money and "ironic" in light of her call to reduce the police budget.

Martinez spokesman Rick Coca said the LAPD had suggested a security detail in response to threats, which was called off after it was "compromised." The department has also provided security at the home of Councilman O'Farrell, whose spokesman said it had also been recommended by the LAPD following threats.

Martinez, asked about past donations from the LAPPL, said in a statement that she answers to her constituents, "who are calling out for justice and change and to root out racism in all aspects of our lives."

L.A. isn't alone: In New York City, some politicians have pledged to redistribute political donations they received from law enforcement groups to organizations helping communities of color. In San Francisco, both state Sen. Scott Wiener and his opponent, Jackie Fielder, have sworn off such donations.

Some L.A. officials argued that the push against police union donations was counterproductive. Blumenfield said that "political gestures like this would only deepen the divide and reduce our potential for substantive negotiations."

Buscaino spokesman Branimir Kvartuc said the councilman wasn't "picking sides" and hadn't considered the issue. Several other officials did not promptly respond to questionsabout political spending by the police union; a Garcetti aide said the mayor is not currently a candidate for office.

Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.