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Opinion | To Get Police Reform, ‘Defund the Politicians’

LOS ANGELES — In late August, Los Angeles sheriff’s deputies shot a Black man, Dijon Kizzee, whom they had stopped for a suspected traffic violation as he rode his bicycle. He became the seventh man killed by deputies in Los Angeles since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day weekend.

On the same afternoon, state legislators in Sacramento raced to the end of their 2020 session. The most significant police reform measure, heralded in the days of the Black Lives Matter marches that filled the streets, did not even come up for a vote.

A centerpiece of the agenda would have set up a process for yanking the badge of any officer found to have committed serious misconduct. California is one of only five states that has no process for certifying police officers, which among other things enables bad cops to move from department to department with impunity.

Democrats hold supermajorities in both houses. Major newspapers in California editorialized in favor of a slew of police reform bills. Polls showed support. In one of the bluest states in the country, all indications pointed toward action on reform.

But in the end, even here, it was essentially business as usual in a State Capitol where police unions have long wielded enormous power. The measures that passed this year were either noncontroversial or so diluted as to have little if any immediate impact.

“The culture has not even begun to change,” said John Crew, a retired attorney who spent decades working on police accountability issues in California for the A.C.L.U. “Their political analysis seems to be that the world has not changed as much as a lot of us think it has. I hope it has.”

If the marches that brought so much hope for profound change are to translate into laws, hope will have to overcome fear: The movement will have to exert enough pressure to overcome politicians’ fear of crossing the unions.

The culture will not change until enough elected officials are unafraid to risk the wrath of police unions, until financial support from law enforcement becomes toxic rather than coveted, until “defund the politicians” becomes as much a rallying cry as “defund the police.”

There have been baby steps. Even amid the legislative defeats, the Black Lives Matter movement generated greater transparency, not of the police themselves — those bills largely failed as well — but of the political process. When it became evident the decertification bill did not have support to pass the Assembly, advocates shifted their public campaign to lobby for a vote anyway, angry that lawmakers could evade taking a stand.

“People are in the streets calling for your leadership, @AssemblyDems,” tweeted a Lakers star, Kyle Kuzma. “Taking a knee isn’t the same as taking a vote.”

Unions have sensed the pressure. Of course they support certification, union officials said. This is just not the way to do it. The pandemic shortened the session and made negotiation difficult. These are complicated issues, they said; this bill is dangerous; the process cannot be rushed; this is an act that will have consequences. “Unknown impacts,” they warned, to public safety.

There is another not particularly subtle subtext about the consequences — the ones that might befall lawmakers. “It’s not really about substance, it’s about power,” Mr. Crew said. “It’s about the implicit threat of what they could do with their money.”

Since 2017, the Peace Officers Research Association, one of the major statewide law enforcement groups, has spent more than $2.6 million to influence elections. One analysis found police unions and associations gave $5.5 million to legislative candidates between 2011 and 2018.

Even before the disappointing finish in Sacramento, some reform advocates had started campaigns to demand that politicians pledge to refuse law enforcement money and support. “Assembly leaders turned their backs on CA’s communities by refusing to vote on SB 731 [police decertification] and choosing to protect abusive cops,” the A.C.L.U. of California wrote. “If you want change, demand lawmakers stop taking political contributions from police.”

A handful of lawmakers have agreed. Two state senators have said they will donate money previously received from law enforcement to community groups. Leaders of several progressive Democratic caucuses have called on the state party to stop accepting contributions from law enforcement unions. Three district attorneys and one candidate in Los Angeles have asked the state bar association to adopt a rule barring lawyers running for district attorney from accepting contributions from law enforcement.

The unions will not easily cede their clout. Politicians will not jettison comfortable habits unless there are consequences. It will take victories by insurgents who stress their independence from police unions and defeats of those who cling to the old paradigms. Unlike New York, California has not yet seen many serious challenges from the left to veteran incumbents. But there are likely to be more, along with generational change as term limits open up new seats.

The shootings, the marches, the protests and the vigils will continue. One of Mr. Kizzee’s lawyers said his client was shot between 15 and 20 times in the back. The sheriff’s department said Mr. Kizzee ran away, dropped a bundle of clothing that included a gun and punched an officer. They will not release the names of the deputies who shot him. They have not even said what traffic violation he might have been committing, other than being a Black man riding a bicycle.

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