On Tuesday, June 30, LA City Council approved a motion to begin responding to nonviolent emergency calls with unarmed responders. The initiative would be similar to the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon, which rerouted 24,000 nonviolent calls, or 18 percent of the total call volume, to outreach workers and medical professionals in 2019. Much of CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets) is dedicated to helping unhoused people who might otherwise be harmed and/or arrested by police. The program also saved the city $14 million, costing just $2 million in 2019.
Los Angeles City Councilmembers Marqueece Harris-Dawson, Mike Bonin, Curren Price, and Herb Wesson also announced a proposal to end traffic stops conducted by police, replacing all traffic law enforcement with Department of Transportation employees and automated technology.
While these plans are good first steps, they address only a small minority of the bloated assortment of functions performed by police. According to the data, only a tiny 4 percent of what police do is responding to emergency situations that may require force — at the very least, shouldn’t unarmed non-police trained in real deescalation respond to the remaining 96 percent of situations? How much of LAPD’s $3 billion budget would we reallocate if we committed to a non-police response for things that clearly don’t require armed intervention?
Let’s look at the numbers.
Questioning whether or not LAPD’s data is accurate or considering the appropriateness of arrests and uses of force warrant their own conversations, so let’s look at the numbers presented and take it with a healthy grain of salt.
First: calls to LAPD. LAPD dispatched 973,958 calls for service in 2019.¹ There were 109,000 calls (11 percent) classified as “emergency” (siren-worthy ones). LAPD did not provide a further breakdown on what constitutes an “emergency,” so let’s operate on the assumption that these emergency calls happened when there was an immediate physical or health threat.
The table below shows that a huge number of calls overall are noncriminal complaints or nonviolent calls for assistance. Even most crime-related calls happen after the fact, so police are rarely responding to “crimes in progress.” Many 911 calls are made just to report something “suspicious.”
The Los Angeles Times estimates that only 8 percent of calls responded to by LAPD over the last decade were for “violent crimes, which The Times defined as homicides, assaults with deadly weapons, robberies, batteries, shots fired and rape.” It’s not apparent how many of these were for “in progress” incidents. Thanks to the data, we also know that many LAPD “emergency” calls are nonviolent in nature, related to mental health or injury, for example.
Next: police-initiated activity. In 2019, LAPD conducted 990,622 police-initiated actions, including 128,929 traffic stops.² There is no breakdown of how many of these could be considered “emergencies,” but we can get a rough idea: not many. Only about 0.06 percent of these incidents resulted in the use of force. Only 5 percent resulted in an arrest.³ Furthermore, according to a report by the Vera Institute of Justice, two-thirds of all arrests by LAPD in 2018 were for “non-serious, non-violent” offenses, such as drug possession or disorderly conduct.⁴ We can easily imagine alternatives to police patrols, which mainly exist to terrorize Black and Brown neighborhoods.
Crime-stoppers? Not so much.
If only about 8 percent of situations LAPD responds to or takes action on can be considered emergencies possibly needing an armed response, why do we still have armed police doing the rest?
The retort to this observation is: you can’t know in advance which situations will become dangerous, so we need to arm police at all times. But this is a completely vacuous argument. Should we all start carrying a gun, a fire extinguisher, and a defibrillator everywhere we go “just in case”?
This is where a further breakdown of police call outcomes would be useful. There are certain catch-all categories like “disturbance” — which could turn out to be domestic violence, for example, or something benign like a yapping dog— that police say are “unpredictable.” But absent this information, if a call is not known to be an emergency beforehand, it seems reasonable to have an unarmed person trained in deescalation and mediation respond first, assess the situation, and only call for police if absolutely necessary. In the CAHOOTS program in 2019, out of 24,000 calls, responders called for police backup just 150 times, or for 0.6 percent of cases.
This phantom of unexpected violence is just that — a phantom. Doing a quick number crunch, we find that in LA, even if a full 25 percent of arrests for serious crimes were “unexpected” — conducted by non-emergency call responders — it would represent less than 1% of all non-emergency calls. The message is simple: extremely few non-emergency calls to police turn dangerous. It’s easy to imagine LAPD arguing that the presence of police at the scene prevents an escalation to violence, but if we know anything, it’s that the police are the escalators most of the time.
One could say that certain nonviolent situations, like a burglary in progress, require someone with the authority to arrest the perpetrator. But as we already covered, police very rarely respond to “crimes in progress.” Not only that, but most property crime goes forever unsolved. So why do we have armed, overpaid people whose job is supposedly to “keep us safe” taking witness statements and doing paperwork? It merely gives LAPD officers an excuse to spend the rest of their time driving around doing nothing, targeting Black and Brown people, and harassing homeless people. This not only causes immediate harm, but also entrenches LAPD’s power through overfunding and taking away critical resources from underserved communities. We can certainly imagine a different kind of “law enforcement” worker without a gun.
What if an Antifa breaks into my mansion?
What about emergencies that do immediately require the police? Won’t slashing the police budget increase response times, like the Los Angeles Police Protective League (LAPPL) keeps claiming?
The Los Angeles Fire Department responded to about 500,000 emergencies in 2019 with an average response time of around 6 minutes 40 seconds. LAPD responded to about 109,000 emergencies with an average response time of around 5 minutes 40 seconds (15% faster).⁴ LAFD has just under 3,500 firefighters, EMS, and paramedics. LAPD has almost 10,000 sworn officers. That’s a ratio of 13:1 LAPD to LAFD personnel per emergency call! Even if we assume two-thirds of police officers are busy with other things at all times, that’s a ratio of over 4:1.
Clearly we could make enormous reductions in LAPD officers without sacrificing response times. Even if police response times increased to those of LAFD, they’d still be among the fastest in the country.
What about the claim that budget cuts will slow down criminal investigations, another LAPPL favorite? Well, only 16 percent of officers are part of LAPD’s Detective Bureau. Even without considering whether LAPD is the appropriate agency to handle them, it’s clear we can massively shift funds toward unarmed responders without affecting investigations. (Unless, that is, LAPD slows down investigations in retaliation, which is the implication.)
So, really, the only defense the cops have is the Thin Blue Line narrative: that without the omnipresent threat of state violence, society would fall into chaos and violent criminals would run rampant. As disgraced City Councilmember Paul Koretz put it, the city would look something like the movie The Purge.⁶
The trouble with ”law enforcement”: vague language that leaves too much wiggle room.
Usually, when we think of “law enforcement,” we think of armed police officers. Unless we move past this, we will still unnecessarily send cops rather than unarmed responders to many situations.
Go back to the City Council motion. Did you notice that the preamble emphasizes noncriminal incidents multiple times, but the motion itself only refers to nonviolent incidents? With similar vagueness, the motion specifies addressing “crisis response” but lists “neighbor disputes” (presumably non-crises) as an example. This sort of imprecision leaves a lot of wiggle room for LAPD to claim authority over many more types of situations than necessary.
In the CAHOOTS program, dispatchers are responsible for assessing whether to refer an incident to CAHOOTS responders or the police. Even if Los Angeles diverts 18 percent of calls to unarmed responders, like the CAHOOTS program does, and replaces all police in handling traffic violations, those changes would only amount to just over 19 percent of total police responses/actions.
The difference between “nonviolent” calls for service and “nonviolent, noncriminal” calls is a critical distinction. Do we still send cops with guns to confront teenagers tagging a wall? Do we send them to investigate a “suspicious” individual who’s somewhere they’re “not supposed to be?” What about someone who allegedly passes a counterfeit bill?
Presumably, for now, the answer is yes.
Numbers don’t lie. Defund LAPD.
Even without addressing full abolition, it is clear that we can go much further in stripping the police of many functions they have no business serving. We’ve given far too much credence to the idea that we need police in many instances, despite the fact the data suggest otherwise.
Even without obsessing over the numbers, it’s obvious that we can build a different model of community safety, and that it is urgent to do so. But if we agree to play the technocratic games LAPD and City Council so love, it’s easy to see we could easily reallocate the majority of the LAPD budget without descending into chaos. If the City Council is serious about replacing police with unarmed responders, they need to commit to much more than the current proposals.
¹ LAPD gives two different numbers in the report. We are looking at the larger number where they break down call categories.
² It’s a bit unclear whether this number accounts for all police-initiated actions or just those radioed in. Also, LAPD reported 1.69 million public contacts, while there were 1.96 million total dispatched calls. No explanation is given for the discrepancy, so let’s operate under the inference that police didn’t find anything when responding to some calls.
³ This is the overall arrest rate for public contacts
⁴ This study cites the number given in the FBI database, which is lower than the total number reported by LAPD. Working off the assumption the proportion is the same.
⁵ This was the most recent number available.
⁶ I doubt Paul knows the premise of The Purge, which depicts a scheme by rich white people to keep poor people in check. The whole point of the movie franchise is that the rich are society’s most violent and have to coerce the poor into violence to try to prove poor Black people are inherently criminal. Also, there are white supremacist agitators who shoot people and then blame it on the despised lower classes. Actually, you know what, maybe people like Paul would initiate something like The Purge if we got rid of police.