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LA Police Union Official: 'Every Dollar You Take Away' Has Consequences

Los Angeles Police Department Chief Michel Moore speaks to a protester after a vigil with members of professional associations and the interfaith community at LAPD headquarters, Friday, June 5, 2020, in Los Angeles.
Mark J. Terrill
Los Angeles Police Department Chief Michel Moore speaks to a protester after a vigil with members of professional associations and the interfaith community at LAPD headquarters, Friday, June 5, 2020, in Los Angeles.

In the two-and-a-half weeks since police killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, the question of how to change policing has eclipsed almost every other topic of debate.

Some of the loudest voices opposing dramatic change are from police unions.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti wants to cut the police budget by as much as $150 million. In a recent speech, he referred to police as "killers." In response, union directors questioned the mayor's mental health.

Robert Harris, an official with the city's police union, says he's not opposed to reassessing the budget in order to better serve the community.

In L.A., and across the country, police are often called on to deal with issues such as homelessness, addiction and mental illness.

"Let's identify things that we have stereotypically put at the feet of law enforcement and see if we can address those better, and let's see what that impact would be in our communities, specifically our higher crime areas or our minority communities," says Harris, a director with the Los Angeles Police Protective League, in an interview on All Things Considered.

But that, he argues, isn't what the current conversation is about.

"What's happening is a philosophy that says police are harming minority communities. Therefore, we're going to punish them by taking money away from them," Harris says. "Every dollar you take away from a department has a real consequence in our neighborhoods."

Here are excerpts from the interview.

Many argue that police unions often stand in the way of reform. For example, California changed state law, over union objections, to open records of officer misconduct to the public. That law took effect last year. What kind of impact has it had?

It's generated an immense amount of administrative work onto police departments. With every new reform, something like body cameras ... all of those things come with administrative functions that then require funding, which is the irony here, every time we ask for something new, it requires funding to do that. I would disagree that rank-and-file union stand in the way of reform. I think that makes for a great clip. I don't think it's rooted in reality. ...

But on that specific state law, the union did oppose that particular effort for transparency and accountability. And when I ask you how it's gone, you say it's created a lot more work. So you can understand why people would have that perception.

... When you reduce some of these issues that are nuanced and have unintended consequences to them, when you reduce them down to "well, the police just don't want to release their personnel records," that's just not true. And it's not fair.

Can you just explain to listeners why unions have so often opposed rules such as clearly prescribed use of force continuums, civilian oversight with subpoena power, things that give unions a reputation for fighting changes in American policing?

Look, some rank-and-file unions have gotten it wrong. ... I think there should be a national minimum use of force policy standard. I think all agencies should have something that ingrains reverence for life in their officers' minds. I think that they should include policies that address de-escalation techniques, tactics and training. I think training itself needs to be better at a national level for police. And these are all things that Los Angeles has implemented over the last two decades, and it has served us very well. I think it is very important for people to have the proper perspective and perceptions when it comes to how do we move forward towards the shared goal of building trust and respect between communities and the officers that serve them.

Listen to the full interview at the audio link.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.