Wary Blacks Voted No to More Police

By Jeffrey L. Rabin, Richard Fausset and Zeke Minaya
Times Staff Writers

November 10, 2004

A pronounced ambivalence about the role of police in largely African American areas of Los Angeles helped sink last week's ballot measure that would have raised the county sales tax to hire more officers, and remains a formidable obstacle to rekindling the proposal solely as a citywide levy.

A precinct-by-precinct analysis by The Times shows that a weakness in South Los Angeles, combined with the perennially anti-tax votes of the west San Fernando Valley, held support for Measure A well below the two-thirds majority needed to pass a tax measure.

This voting pattern, unusual among African Americans, is shaping up as the biggest challenge to Mayor James K. Hahn, who is pushing a divided City Council to put the measure on the citywide ballot next year.

The result also highlights the LAPD's continuing dilemma of trying to increase patrols in high-crime areas of South L.A. without increasing tensions there.

Measure A, which would have raised the sales tax from 8.25% to 8.75%, won two-thirds or more of the vote in many parts of the Mid-City area and the Westside, as backers expected.

But south of the Santa Monica Freeway, support faded enough to prevent passage of the proposal, which garnered 59.6% countywide and 64% in the city, according to preliminary returns. Final returns will not be available until all absentee and provisional ballots are counted.

"Since it was that close, it seems to me that's a mandate when you get 64% of the people to agree on anything," Hahn said in a radio interview Monday. "People want us to put more police on the streets."

In addition, the Times analysis shows that heavily Latino neighborhoods on the Eastside with crime problems similar to those of South Los Angeles overwhelmingly supported the measure, as did many small cities in the southeastern area of the county whose streets are not patrolled by the LAPD.

The proposal's failure came despite an early strategy by proponents to register and persuade voters, particularly blacks, in South L.A. to support it.

Polls by Measure A backers before the election had shown a weakness in that area, where African Americans, while no longer a majority of residents, do constitute a majority of registered voters in many neighborhoods.

Even a last-minute purchase of airtime on radio stations with large black audiences failed to counter efforts by prominent leaders and grass-roots groups to stop the measure.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) urged a no vote on Measure A on a slate mailer she sent to 170,000 voters, while the Watts Community Labor Action Council and former state Sen. Tom Hayden added their voices of opposition to the tax increase.

Interviews with black voters revealed a desire for protection tempered by negative experiences with law enforcement.

Outside the Miracle Market at Wilmington Avenue and Alondra Boulevard in Compton, Edward Lindsey said the police didn't deserve the extra tax money because they hadn't learned to respect residents.

Lindsey said he would have voted for the measure if police "were doing what they should do instead of messing with everybody."

A few weeks ago, the former GM plant worker said, he was pulled over by police who told him he looked like a suspected gang member. "How the hell can I look like a gangbanger?" Lindsey said. "I'm 74 years old. I'm retired!"

At the Power of Love Christian Fellowship, a black church in South Los Angeles, Bishop Edward Turner, who supported the measure, said the police and sheriff's deputies had made big inroads with people of color.

"You can have the best guard dog in the world, but if you don't feed him, he's no good," Turner said. Many people in his community voted yes because they knew that they would be the first to suffer from any cutbacks in service, he added.

But with the exception of one precinct near the church, the neighborhood vote failed to reach the two-thirds required, though it exceeded a simple majority.

Political scientist Raphael Sonenshein, who has written extensively about race and politics in Los Angeles, said the lack of enthusiasm for the measure among African Americans was notable.

"For black residents, it doesn't matter if you make it in life; you can [still] get stopped by police," he said. The impact of such stops "has been tremendous on blacks, and that has generated a lot of that ambivalence."

Sonenshein said it would be difficult for Hahn or anyone else to reach a two-thirds yes vote citywide on such a measure without addressing opposition in South L.A.

"It's going to be much harder if the black community is not strongly supportive," Sonenshein said, adding that a March or May election also would draw fewer voters.

Historically, bond or tax measures pass in the city if there is strong support from African Americans and Latinos, as well as moderate to liberal whites, especially Jewish voters, he said.

Rick Taylor, a political consultant to the Measure A campaign, said last week's ballot, which included the presidential candidates, may have been the proposal's best shot until the June 2006 primary.

"I understand the need. I want it to win," Taylor said. But he cautioned against rushing to put the measure on the next city ballot.

Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas, a big Measure A supporter, said a string of police abuse cases dating from before the 1991 Rodney King beating through this year's flashlight beating of Stanley Miller in Compton did not help the cause. The tax increase failed to pass in Compton and Inglewood, in addition to South Los Angeles.

"The most infamous cases of police misconduct in the area have had to do with African American victims," Ridley-Thomas said.

"An agenda that argues exclusively for more cops is not likely to get the response of something that calls for more prevention and more reform," he added. "I think the electorate would respond more favorably to a more holistic look at crime."

Some of the electorate, however, responded enthusiastically.

Jesus Ortiz, a 29-year resident of the Eastside, said not a week went by without the sound of gunshots.

"There are so many gangs, hiding in the corners, where we can't see them. There's just so many. Just on that corner over there, last weekend, a young man was shot three times," said Ortiz, 70. "Raising taxes is a problem, but police are more important."

Luis Sereseres, 18, a fast-food restaurant employee from Lincoln Heights, said he voted for Measure A despite misgivings about police. "I've been pulled over; I've been badgered, But we need cops to stop the violence."

The strong sentiment for the tax measure stretched beyond the Eastside to the small, predominantly Latino cities along the Long Beach Freeway.

At the Aztec Smoke Shop in Bell, a small storefront with pipes and a few hardcore rap CDs, employee Juan Carlos Gonzalez said he supported the measure, even though it took police half an hour to respond to the recent theft of his Chevy Tahoe.

If Measure A passed, the 34-year-old figured, "maybe next time they'll get to it sooner."

Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, which encourages Latino voting, said he was not surprised that Latinos turned out to support Measure A.

"The Latino community does not think it is an option to say, 'We don't want more police,' because there is too much need for public safety," he said.

In addition, there was no shortage of Latino public officials, including Sheriff Lee Baca and Los Angeles City Council President Alex Padilla, touting the measure. Fellow councilman and mayoral hopeful Antonio Villaraigosa paid for and appeared in pro-tax commercials on English- and Spanish-language television.

Los Angeles Councilman and former LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks, who supported the measure, said another commercial for the campaign failed to work with black voters. The spot featured a white woman frantically dialing 911 to report an intruder but failing to get a timely response.

Much like white voters, he said, African Americans are growing weary of tax increases to pay for basic services.

"We have overwhelmed the community with a myriad of bond issues that have added to the property tax," to pay for schools, community colleges, libraries, and fire and police stations, he said. "People are saying, 'Ouch!' "

Waters, whose slate urged a no vote, went further. Her constituents see too little return for their support, she said.

Two years ago, she noted, voters in her district helped pass a countywide property tax measure to maintain and expand trauma centers. This year, the county Board of Supervisors nonetheless proposed closing the trauma center at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, which serves her area.

"Don't keep piecemealing and coming back asking people to tax themselves," Waters said. "I think it's time to say, 'No.' "

Times staff writer Doug Smith contributed to this report.


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