When Los Angeles City Administrative Officer Rich Llewellyn suggested that the LAPD might have to cut 10% of its force, or 951 officers, due to a pandemic induced budget crunch the defund the police advocates cheered. If this cut actually happens—and cutting police is an old “cry wolf” strategy to secure new funds that is rarely implemented– it would certainly be a test of how far the general population will go in supporting defunding the police.

The LAPD already saw $150 million chopped from its budget in the wake of the George Floyd justice reform protests. How much in cuts can the police department stand without putting the city residents’ safety in jeopardy? 

Public safety is often called the first civil right. Yet, the cuts would be particularly harmful to minority communities that have seen a recent upsurge in violent crime. Meanwhile, homicides are up in Los Angeles by nearly 30% over last year to the largest number in more than a decade and the year is not finished yet. 

In this case, it is suggested that city officials are hoping to pressure police officers to yield on some of their contractual raises that are coming due. Threatening to cut police is often a tactic employed by advocates of more government spending. A familiar refrain is if you want to keep the police force intact, support a tax increase. But that is reading off an old script. In this time of social justice protests, the previous sacrosanct status of the police is no more. 

Yet, public safety is a constant concern across all demographic lines. 

One argument of those who applauded the potential cuts for the LAPD is that an increase in crime was spurred by lack of adequate resources for communities. But the proposed cuts to the LAPD won’t make any more resources available. The cuts are suggested because of the drop in revenue for the city.

City officials are hoping there will be a substantial financial rescue package for local governments coming out of Washington, especially when the new Biden Administration takes over. There is another way to save hundreds of millions of dollars in the police budget that David Crane addresses in his piece on this page today. It is a sensible adjustment to post employment benefits. 

But the major issue of defunding the police won’t be decided by Washington. It could be decided, however, if drastic cuts like those proposed in L.A. are made to police departments. 

While a city decision to remove more officers from the streets would be a test for the defund the police movement, it also will come with some unintended consequences. Already the rise in crime and homicides and the dramatic increase in gun sales to private citizens, including many first-time buyers, can in good part be attributed to the debate over police funding and police budget reductions. 

It will be interesting to see how the newly elected Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón, elected on a progressive justice agenda, will deal with increased crimes.

More telling is where will L.A. citizens draw the line on reduction of police services. I believe they are at the edge of that line now and the proposed police cuts will not be welcomed.

More on perspectives on police reform in tomorrow’s column.