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George Gascón and Karen Bass
Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón and U.S. Rep. Karen Bass

Los Angeles Democrats Embrace the Tough-on-Crime Backlash

Despite its self-styled reputation as America’s most progressive city, LA Democrats are becoming virtually indistinguishable from Republicans on public safety.

by Jerry Iannelli

A tough-on-crime backlash is currently gripping Southern California. In February, Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón became the latest local Democratic politician to fold to conservative critics, when he walked back two major campaign promises that had swept him into office just over a year before.

Gascón, previously a deputy LAPD chief and top prosecutor in San Francisco, won election in 2020 on the backs of progressive voters by promising a slew of anti-carceral policies, including banning prosecutors from seeking the death penalty or charging teenagers in adult court.

Predictably, conservatives responded by cherry-picking cases in a bad faith attempt to brand Gascón as “pro-crime.” But, perhaps less predictably, they succeeded in forcing Gascón to cave. In two staff memos last month, Gascón announced that he will, after all, let prosecutors in his office try children as adults and seek sentences of life without parole in “exceptional cases.”

Some progressives who supported Gascón have told local media they’re dismayed by his decision. But Gascón’s reversal was only the latest in a series of cruel and spineless moves by the county’s Democratic political class, which in recent months has adopted a public safety agenda that has put it squarely in line with some of LA’s more reactionary forces. 

Los Angeles is far from the only jurisdiction to trend in such a rightward direction, less than two years after making meager concessions in response to racial justice uprisings sparked by the murder of George Floyd. But that it is happening here—in what is supposedly one of the most progressive cities in America, where the Democratic machine dominates nearly every level of government—is a testament to the power of a fearmongering campaign that has ginned up dubious stories claiming Los Angeles has devolved into “The Purge.” And it shows why people must continue to put pressure on local officials to revamp the legal system.

What a difference a few years makes. In 2020, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti cut millions of dollars from the LAPD budget amid a broader push to redirect law enforcement funding toward supportive services for people struggling with homelessness or mental health issues. Those cuts have since been reinstated, with Garcetti calling in 2021 to increase the city’s police budget by 3 percent

As hopes for more meaningful budgetary shifts have dwindled, many cities in Los Angeles County have instead ramped up enforcement, cracking down on homeless encampments with varying degrees of severity and violence.

In July, the city of Los Angeles passed a sweeping anti-homeless encampment ordinance that bans sitting or sleeping in many public spaces. The measure, drafted by Democrat Mark Ridley-Thomas (who has since been suspended from his post following federal corruption charges), sailed through the city council with just two opposing votes from Nithya Raman and Mike Bonin, both left-leaning council members who have openly feuded with the city’s Democratic political class.

Such opposition looks likely to remain a minority position in Los Angeles for the foreseeable future. With Garcetti set to depart his post to become President Joe Biden’s ambassador to India, U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, a Democrat from Los Angeles, has emerged as the front-runner to win the city’s mayoral election in November.

Although Bass has previously fought to change American policing, she has been quick to cheerlead for local cops since entering the race. In the run-up to the city’s June Democratic primary, Bass has promised to “aggressively recruit” new LAPD officers, move more sworn officers from desk duty to street patrol, roll back bail-reform measures in some form, and crack down on “property crime.” In interviews, she has said she “agrees with the intent” of the city’s homeless encampment ban and has refused to endorse a measure backed by progressives and labor groups that would tax real estate transactions in order to fund housing for the homeless.

While Bass has vowed to house at least 15,000 people in her first year, she also states on her website that she plans to “end street encampments” citywide. More than 60,000 people were experiencing homelessness on any given night in Los Angeles County during 2020, according to the most recent count.

As this has played out, conservatives in both the local and national press have cranked out story after story blaming Gascón for nearly every crime or societal ill in the city, from shoplifting all the way up to murder.

During his campaign to unseat longtime Los Angeles County DA Jackie Lacey, Gascón said his prosecutors would never charge anyone under the age of 18 as an adult. Since then, however, some members of the Los Angeles press corps have all but begged Gascón to throw the book at people who committed crimes as children. In February 2021, critics lambasted Gascón for refusing to charge a man as an adult after he allegedly shot two people to death at age 17. Months later, Gascón enraged conservatives when his policy against the death penalty prevented prosecutors from seeking capital punishment for a couple accused of killing a 10-year-old boy.

Members of Gascón’s own office have helped fuel the pushback: The union that represents his workers, the Association of Deputy District Attorneys for Los Angeles County, is currently suing Gascón over policies that had sought to limit requests for excessive sentencing. And, this being California, conservatives have launched campaigns to recall Gascón and boot him from office.

The tipping point finally came in recent months, amid conservative furor over Gascón’s decision to charge 26-year-old Hannah Tubbs in juvenile court, in a case involving allegations that she molested a 10-year-old girl when she was 17. Fox News has seized on the fact that Tubbs is transgender, and that the alleged incident took place in a public bathroom.

Although Gascón at first appeared prepared to defend the positions that got him elected, he later reportedly became aware that Fox News was planning to release jailhouse recordings of Tubbs mocking her victim and joking that she’d “lucked out” by being tried as a juvenile. In a Feb. 20 statement, Gascón cited the Tubbs case as a major reason he was reversing his policies on juveniles.

“Like every responsible office, we learn as we go, take feedback from the community, and make necessary adjustments based on our experiences and the complex nature of this work,” he said, adding that the “complex issues and facts of her particular case were unusual, and I should have treated them that way.”

Though this may have simply been an attempt at damage control, Gascón’s capitulation also comes with a cost. After all, this wasn’t just a disingenuous attack on Gascón’s policies and leadership—it was part of a much broader campaign to undermine the entire ethos he has embraced as a progressive prosecutor; to discredit his stated belief that draconian punishments are ineffective, and, in fact, actively harmful to public safety.

Gascón must know this. And yet he wilted anyway in the face of a manufactured moral panic. 

It’s a bad sign that Los Angeles Democrats have been so eager to submit to bad faith criticism over crime and public safety. By now it should be clear that they gain nothing by giving into right-wing smear campaigns. The end goal of Gascón’s harshest critics is not just to walk back police reform or temper his policies, but to boot Democrats from office entirely and create new fodder for the right-wing outrage mill. The hits will just keep coming—only now, conservatives smell blood.

In the news

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Samaria Rice, Tamir Rice’s mother, wrote in Scalawag on the Department of Justice’s decision to keep the investigation into her son’s death closed. In 2014, Tamir Rice, then 12, was playing outside when police arrived. Within seconds, Cleveland Police Department Officer Timothy Loehmann shot and killed Rice. When the Department of Justice closed its investigation in 2020, Rice and others, including 50 attorneys and legal scholars, asked the Department of Justice to reopen its investigation. In January, the DOJ sent a letter to the Rice family’s attorney, denying their request. “After the horrible news from the DOJ, I now know that there will be no justice for Black and brown people in America when it comes to police murders and police shootings. The DOJ breaks its own rules, so how do we get justice in a system like that? They are cowards, and the system can’t be fixed,” Samaria Rice writes in Scalawag. [Samaria Rice / Scalawag]

New York City police officers shot 18-year-old Luis Manuel-Monsanto in the head while he was driving. Mayor Eric Adams, a former police captain, has claimed that the high school student, who is in critical condition, drove toward an officer. “In the days where vehicles are used in terrorist attacks, to drive into crowds, we’re dealing with a different moment in policing,” Adams said. The victim’s father is demanding to see the video, which has not been released to the public. [Nicole Johnson / Pix 11]

A Philadelphia plainclothes police officer identified by the Philadelphia Inquirer as Edsaul Mendoza fatally shot a 12-year-old boy in the back. The commissioner, who has not identified the officer by name, said the officer will be fired. Criminal charges have not yet been filed. [Barbara Laker and Ryan W. Briggs / Philadelphia Inquirer]

The Idaho House passed a bill, HB 675, that will make it a felony, punishable by life in prison, to provide gender-affirming healthcare, such as puberty blockers, hormone therapy, and gender affirming surgery, to transgender youth, to provide permission for such treatment, or to allow a minor to travel outside the state to receive such treatment. Only 13 legislators voted against the bill. The legislation now heads to the State Senate. [Betsy Z. Russell / Idaho Press]

New York’s Less Is More Act, which eliminated jail sentences for most technical parole violations, went into effect on March 1. But the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision has refused to release 91 people jailed for technical parole violations because they were incarcerated before the law went into effect. Assemblymember Phara Souffrant Forrest, who sponsored the Assembly version of Less Is More, called the department’s interpretations “appalling and frankly, embarrassing.” [Chris Gelardi / New York Focus]

Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced that the state has finalized rules forbidding cities with populations above 250,000 from cutting their police budgets, which includes Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, and Austin. “Texas remains a law-and-order state and we continue to make it abundantly clear that we support our law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line every day to keep communities safe,” he said in a release. [Brad Johnson / The Texan]

That’s all for this week. Feel free to leave us some feedback, and if you want to support our official relaunch, please donate here. Until next time, the work continues.

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