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Los Angeles voters just delivered a huge win for the defund the police movement

LA’s “Yes on J” campaign flipped the message from defunding cops to investing in everything else. It worked brilliantly.

A protester in a large group of protesters holds a sign that reads, “Defund LAPD.”
Demonstrators in Los Angeles peacefully protest the Kentucky grand jury decision in the case of Breonna Taylor’s death at the hands of Louisville police, September 24, 2020.
Robert Gauthier/ Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Los Angeles voters have approved Measure J, also known as “Reimagine LA County,” which requires that 10 percent of the city’s unrestricted general funds — estimated between $360 million and $900 million per year — be invested in social services and alternatives to incarceration, not prisons and policing.

As of Wednesday afternoon, with a majority of votes counted, 57.1 percent of voters supported the measure, 42.9 percent opposed, according to the Los Angeles County registrar.

The measure’s passage comes at a moment when activists across the US — including in LA — have called for defunding police departments. While Measure J isn’t directly a defund the police initiative, it was designed as an important first step toward the public health and investment-based model of public safety that animates the defund movement.

A critique often made by police reformers of all stripes is that American cities rely far too heavily on law enforcement to address issues like substance abuse, mental health, and homelessness that would be better handled by social service providers and civilian responders. Thus, they generally agree that some level of funding should be redirected from police department budgets to those alternative service providers.

In practice, that is exactly what Measure J is likely to do. The measure’s language does not explicitly require that the funds for social services and incarceration alternatives must be diverted from law enforcement and the prison system. Nevertheless, in an August board meeting, acting county chief executive Fesia Davenport said that the Sheriff’s Department — which accounts for $2 billion of the existing local budget — would likely be impacted.

The fact that Measure J echoes demands to defund the police isn’t an accident. The charge to support the initiative was led by the Re-Imagine L.A. County coalition: a collection of almost 100 local racial and criminal justice organizations, including Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, progressive political groups, and local unions — many of which had been at the forefront of the successful organizing effort to stop LA County’s $2.2 billion jail expansion plan in 2019.

“Measure J answers county voters’ call for true structural change by ensuring through a charter amendment that dollars from existing county funds are dedicated to the priority programs and services our Black and Brown communities need for an equitable future,” Eunisses Hernandez, co-chair of Re-Imagine L.A. County, told Patch. “Measure J invests in jobs, rather than jails; in people, rather than punishment; and in mental health rather than incarceration.”

How Measure J will work, briefly explained

Measure J will amend LA county’s charter, requiring the local Board of Supervisors to allocate a 10th of its roughly $8.8 billion discretionary local budget to programs and services that fall within one of two categories: “direct community investment,” which includes affordable housing, job training, and investments in minority-owned businesses; and “alternatives to incarceration,” which includes restorative justice programs, mental health and substance abuse disorder treatment, and prison reentry initiatives.

The measure prohibits the city from using any of those funds on law enforcement or incarceration. And it explicitly dictates that the new funds “cannot supplant” existing social service or alternatives to incarceration spending — they must be taken from elsewhere.

Crucially, Measure J is not simply a one-off budgetary concession; it codifies the 10 percent funding mandate into law with no sunset clause. For supporters, this is the measure’s most important feature: LA County will be required to continue funding alternatives to policing and incarceration in perpetuity, long after immediate political pressure for police reform dies down.

It’s “something that’s going to outlive me, it’s going to outlive you, and it hopefully impacts the communities that come after us,” Hernandez told the New Republic.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved placing the measure on the ballot by a vote of 4-1 in early August. That decision was largely in response not only to the protest movement for racial justice that rose to new prominence this summer, but to pressure by groups like the Re-Imagine L.A. Coalition,

The measure went on to garner public support from numerous local and statewide officials like LA Mayor Eric Garcetti, California Rep. Adam Schiff, and California’s Secretary of State Alex Padilla, as well as community leaders like Dolores Huerta, organizations like the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, and major publications like the LA Times.

Meanwhile, Measure J drew sharp opposition from local law enforcement leaders who argued it is a thinly veiled attempt to defund the police. Earlier this year, LA Sheriff Alex Villanueva took to social media to warn that if the amendment passes, the measure would lead to de facto cuts to law enforcement budgets, resulting in patrol station closures, officer layoffs, and a dystopian future in which the streets of LA would look “like a scene from Mad Max.” The Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs alone has spent more than $3.5 million on campaign advertising aimed at convincing the public that Measure J’s goal is to defund the police.

The advocates pushing for Measure J, however, have avoided framing the initiative in those terms. The rhetoric of defunding the police is completely absent from the campaign’s website and outreach materials. Instead, the campaign’s messaging has focused almost entirely on the benefits of increased investment in underserved Black and brown communities.

That was a likely strategic decision by the Re-Imagine LA County coalition. National polls from this summer indicate that voters largely support investing in social services and policing alternatives; however, direct questions about defunding or abolishing the police are often opposed by majorities. For instance, a June Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 76 percent of respondents supported proposals to shift money from policing to social services but only 39 percent supported “defunding the police.” And polling done by the Re-Imagine L.A. County coalition and the local polling outfit Evitarus in LA county found similar results.

In a year when most major cities have responded to nationwide protests by increasing their police budgets and others have walked back or circumvented their commitments to slash police spending, the strategic choice to frame Measure J as an investment — and develop a ballot initiative that does not explicitly cut police funding — could explain why the initiative has succeeded where so many others have failed.

Supporters also point to the successful efforts of local organizers to stop LA County’s $2.2 billion jail expansion plan in 2019 and push local government to develop the county’s Alternatives to Incarceration Workgroup report as laying the political and coalitional foundation for Measure J’s eventual victory.

Voters confirmed the efficacy of that strategy this week. The passage of Measure J is perhaps the most significant victory for the police reform movement since this summer’s protests.

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