In summary

Karen Bass was considered the more liberal candidate in the Los Angeles mayoral race, but as all mayors quickly discover, there’s no liberal or conservative way to fill potholes. Problems are simply problems. Her proposal to increase the police budget reveals how she has adjusted to the realities of city government.

Serving as mayor of Los Angeles has a way of bending the officeholder to the office. 

Richard Riordan ran for mayor as a tough-on-crime Republican; he governed as a centrist who worked with President Bill Clinton to rebuild the city after the Northridge earthquake. Antonio Villaraigosa was a union organizer in his youth; his time as mayor was marked by his battles with the teachers’ union over school control. James Hahn won office on the strength of his support from African Americans and residents of the San Fernando Valley; he refused a second term to a popular African American police chief, Bernard C. Parks, and squashed the feeble Valley secession campaign.

Now comes Karen Bass. Elected last year as the more liberal of two options before Los Angeles voters, Bass brings a lifetime of experience in community health and coalition building – and as a Democratic star in Sacramento and Washington. Now, just four months into her new job, she is discovering that politics – at least in traditional liberal vs. conservative terms – don’t mean much when it comes to governing this metropolis. 

As all mayors quickly discover, there are no conservative ways to fill potholes nor liberal ones to sweep streets. Washington thrives on ideological war games. Closer to home, problems are simply problems.

In an interview and in her first State of the City address, Bass projected the qualities that got her elected: optimism backed by shrewd insight and a tough core. She also revealed the early indications of moving from candidate to mayor.

Nowhere was that more evident than in her rapidly evolving approach to public safety. 

This is a city that has had more than its share of troubles with its police department, and there’s a substantial chunk of the political leadership today that wants to see the LAPD punished for its excesses – a sentiment reflected in the calls for “defunding” or otherwise reallocating resources from police and to other services such as mental health and housing. 

But it’s also a city that is burdened by crime, and any call to reduce police services must contend with the possibility that drawing down cops won’t make communities any safer.

There is plenty of evidence of danger, especially from the illicit drug trade. In early April, three Angelenos died of fentanyl overdoses – in a single building on a single day. By late February, 21 people had died on Metro trains and buses, matching the death count for all of 2022. All but one of those deaths were the result of drug overdoses

That cascade of drug deaths startled Bass and those around her, and it underscored the dangers of defunding police at a time when addiction, housing shortages and homeless encampments have made many Angelenos fearful.

Bass has proposed two responses: money for housing and treatment, consistent with her liberal background, and money for police, a time-tested option that reflects the realities of being mayor. 

“My budget breaks new ground,” she said on Monday, addressing supporters in the council chambers, “by using funds received from the opioid and tobacco settlements to pay for substance abuse treatment beds for the unhoused.”

That was greeted with applause. Less enthusiastic was the response to the other half of her remedy: beefing up the ranks of the LAPD.

Karen Bass speaks at her inauguration ceremony as Mayor of Los Angeles in Los Angeles on Dec. 11, 2022. Photo by Ted Soqui/SIPA USA via Reuters
Karen Bass speaks at her inauguration ceremony as Mayor of Los Angeles in Los Angeles on Dec. 11, 2022. Photo by Ted Soqui/SIPA USA via Reuters

In that idea, Bass follows the lead of her diverse predecessors. Riordan came to office pledging to expand the LAPD by 3,000 officers in four years. Hahn proposed a tax hike to get the department to 10,000 officers. Villaraigosa raised trash fees to hit that same mark, which he did to great fanfare in 2013.

In recent years, the LAPD has been moving in the other direction. Here and across the country, officers have felt battered by COVID and the national fury at police over a seemingly endless succession of shootings that have killed suspects – many Black and unarmed – from coast to coast. Locally, the city of Los Angeles recently released by mistake photographs of officers on undercover assignments. For some officers, that was the last straw; Bass predicts that dozens, even hundreds, may soon leave.

As of April 3, the LAPD’s ranks had dwindled far below the high-water mark set by Villaraigosa a decade ago. Authorized for 9,460 sworn positions, it boasts roughly 9,100

So even in the face of widespread criticism of the police, mainly from the political left, Bass is proposing to do what so many of her predecessors have done and hire more cops.

Her budget calls for additional funds for recruitment, including signing bonuses; for additional civilian employees, including 911 operators; and for more rank-and-file officers, in part by coaxing some recent retirees back into uniform. All told, she is hoping to expand the department by some 400 officers. 

Bass is not pivoting to an entirely new position. Even as she has supported programs to divert some problems away from police, she has emphasized the indispensable role that officers play. Still, she recognizes the perils of championing more police, and when I asked her whether she was satisfied with the LAPD, she defended the department while also insisting that it improve.

“It is not the force that I want to see,” she said. “What we have done as a society is we don’t take care of our problems, and then we expect the police to clean everything up. Policy-wise, that is very foolish.”

Bass was barely in office when she made her first major LAPD move, reappointing Chief Michel Moore for another five-year term. Even as she did, however, she made it clear that she expects the chief to perform, and she laid out specific marks for him to hit. She’s given Moore additional time and is trying to get him more officers, but it’s safe to say Bass’ patience seems limited.

Finally, there is this: Yes, mayors of all types – Black, white or Latino; business-oriented Republicans or union-supported Democrats – eventually are shaped by the city’s needs. But politics does not disappear and winning is hard. Riordan fell short of his 3,000-officer goal in his first term; the council rejected Hahn’s police expansion, and the economy bottomed out after Villaraigosa got his. 

By the time he was through, Mayor Eric Garcetti was cutting police, not adding them.

Bass’s first budget and early moves demonstrate that she’s adjusting her agenda to the realities of city government. But it’s a long haul, and it’s littered with potholes.

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Jim Newton is a veteran journalist, best-selling author and teacher. He worked at the Los Angeles Times for 25 years as a reporter, editor, bureau chief and columnist, covering government and politics....