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The Ballot Initiative That Could Change How You Think About Defunding the Police

To build community support, organizers in L.A. flipped the message—and tactic—from taking money away from cops to locking in funds for everything else. Will it work?


Something shifted in the weeks following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, or at least it felt that way. Calls to defund the police rang out in protests across the country and through the halls of city government. The Minneapolis City Council, in a widely covered June rally, announced a veto-proof majority in support of dismantling its deadly police force. In New York City, local officials were confronted by a protest encampment at City Hall that grew by the hour, coalescing around a single demand: to cut the city’s $6 billion police budget. National media outlets, including this one, dedicated unprecedented page space and airtime to ideas of abolition and life after the police.

But less than six months later, as a summer of upheaval and potential came to a close, many of the early pledges made by sympathetic—or at least politically shrewd—elected officials in Democratic cities have collapsed. The Minneapolis City Council, facing pushback from its bureaucratic charter commission, decided it would not be disbanding its police force after all; and onetime cuts made in cities from Portland to New York have been exposed as performative budgetary sleights of hand. That was particularly true in Los Angeles, where the city council voted in July to cut just $150 million from the police department’s $1.8 billion budget, around the same time as officers received a 4.8 percent raise and new bonuses that will amount to $41 million by the end of the fiscal year. 

These were lessons well learned. Over the last few months, advocates in Los Angeles have quietly pushed through a ballot initiative, built on years of research, organizing, and coalition-building, that would not only prevent funds from being spent on the traditional criminal justice system but—crucially—reserve them for social and community services. It is uniquely designed not just to circumvent the fickle whims of elected officials but to outlast them. 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,” Eunisses Hernandez, a co-executive director of the decarceration group La Defensa and a co-chair of the Reimagine L.A. campaign built around that ballot initiative, Measure J, told me in a recent Zoom interview. 

If passed in November by voters in the nation’s most populous county, Measure J would amend the county charter to require that at least 10 percent of the roughly $8.8 billion in locally generated revenues be set aside every year for community investment and alternatives to incarceration like mental health treatment, substance abuse services, and counseling and rehabilitation programs. By prohibiting these specific funds from being spent on jails, law enforcement, and the court system—which already account for a disproportionate amount of spending—it would move toward accomplishing what many activists across the country have been calling for: a government that spends its resources on housing, health care, and community instead of just cops. Its passage would be historic in Los Angeles County, but it would also potentially create a road map for communities across the country. Or at least that’s what its organizers hope.  

The measure, though characterized by opponents as a rash, “knee jerk” reaction to police brutality protests, grew out of an existing movement to reform the criminal justice system in Los Angeles County, which operates the world’s largest jail system and one of its deadliest, most well-funded sheriff’s departments. Anti-carceral activists including Hernandez made huge strides last year when they pushed the county to cancel plans to build two massive correctional facilities that would have collectively detained more than 5,000 people and cost more than $2 billion. At the same time, they also spurred the county to commission a report, published in March, on alternatives to incarceration. “That’s I think where we saw the seeds of Measure J, because they met for over a year, they came in with a number of recommendations that were adopted by the board,” said Sheila Kuehl, supervisor for the county’s third district. “It’s really those groups who were working together that recognized that it was very difficult to enact reform for the long-term.” 

If the movement to rethink policing and incarceration was well underway last year, then it only gained momentum—and a new sense of urgency—following Floyd’s murder, when thousands of protesters poured into the streets of Los Angeles, prompting Mayor Eric Garcetti to call in 1,000 armed troops from the national guard, despite his previous assurance that he wouldn’t. Protesters had reasons to be angry: L.A. officers from the police and sheriff’s department had killed 18 people, nearly all of whom were Black or Latinx, within the first five months of 2020 alone—and more than 200 people over the last five years, according to a database compiled by the Los Angeles Times. The killings didn’t stop after the protests: Since June, law enforcement officers  in L.A. County have killed 11 people, according to the Times’ count, including 18-year-old Andres Guardado and 29-year-old Dijon Kizzee, both of whom were shot in the back multiple times. The county has declined to prosecute any of the officers involved. All of this unfolded against a backdrop of surging wage inequality, skyrocketing rents, and a homelessness crisis that in the past year ballooned by more than 12 percent, affecting more than 66,000 people—roughly a quarter of whom experience serious mental illness.   

Measure J “is a reflection of what our values are in this moment of a pandemic, but even beyond that, we should be investing in people’s health, people’s housing, and alternatives to incarceration,” said Hernandez, who has cropped bleached-blonde hair and speaks with the rapid determination of a person familiar with getting her point across under a time cap—the kind of constraint you see at public hearings and policy meetings. When she first began approaching the Board of Supervisors in 2015 about shifting funding away from the largest jail system in the world, “nobody gave a fuck about that. Literally, it went from one ear and out the other, and that was it.” 

Hernandez’s path to anti-carceral activism began with her witnessing friends end up in jail for marijuana convictions—“Their lives still haven’t recovered because of that.” It inspired her to get her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, with the intent of becoming a cop. “I was like, you know what? I could be the cop that doesn’t arrest people. I could be the cop that helps people and gets them some of the support they need,” she said. It was a course on criminology that introduced her to anti-capitalist critiques of criminalization that changed her mind. It was there that she first saw policing as a deeply entrenched institution—something bigger than her own good intentions. “As one person you could not change an institution,” she said. 

Still, Hernandez, like other advocates involved in shaping Measure J, insists that it’s not about defunding the police. Those words do not appear anywhere on the campaign website, where the rhetoric focuses on community investment rather than divestment from law enforcement. It’s a savvy framing, considering that national polls show Americans generally support police reforms but respond negatively when they’re positioned as proposals to defund the police. In a Reuters/Ipsos poll from June, for example, just 39 percent of respondents said they supported defunding the police, compared to 76 percent who said they supported proposals to shift money from policing to social services. 

“Our language, our framing has just been rooted in care and opportunity, the creation of essential jobs in civic institutions,” said Isaac Bryan, a director of public policy at the UCLA Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies and a co-chair, along with Hernandez, of the Reimagine L.A. campaign. “I think by and large, we just wanted to tell the truth about what we believe … and what the measure is and isn’t. I don’t know that we’re afraid to say ‘defund the police.’ The measure just doesn’t call for taking the money from law enforcement agencies.” 

The sheriff’s department doesn’t see it that way. After the County Board of Supervisors voted to put the measure on the ballot—the result of ongoing organizing efforts from advocates like Hernandez and Bryan—Sheriff Alex Villanueva slammed it as being part of an ongoing plot to defund his department, which previously faced pandemic-related budget cuts. “If you don’t want your streets to look like a scene from Mad Max, use your voice to tell the board what you think,” he tweeted on July 21, suggesting, in Trumpian fashion, that Measure J would result in unbridled anarchy. (Villanueva himself exists as a case study on the limits of reform: He campaigned on a pledge of rehabilitating a corrupt department, which helped him earn a rare endorsement from the Democratic Party and ultimately unseat the incumbent sheriff in 2018. Now, not even halfway into his four-year term, he’s repeatedly flouted county rules, including ignoring a subpoena from a civilian oversight commission and reinstating an officer who had been fired for domestic violence allegations.) 

Kuehl, who co-authored the motion to put Measure J on the ballot with Supervisor Hilda Solis, said Villanueva’s claim that Measure J is an attempt to defund his department is “bogus.” She added, “The sheriff gets over 20 percent of all of the locally generated funds for his operation—almost $2 billion a year.” That hasn’t stopped his department’s union from aggressively fundraising in an effort to defeat the ballot measure. The Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs has already spent more than $3 million to oppose Measure J, according to the latest campaign finance reports. “I hope that people recognize that they are spending a lot of money—that they say really their members need—to try to keep other people from getting services,” said Kuehl.  

By contrast, the Measure J campaign has raised funds mostly from individual philanthropists and justice-oriented foundations such as Liberty Hill. Significant contributions collectively amounting to more than $1 million came from Patty Quillin, whose husband is Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, and lawyer and start-up founder Nicole Shanahan, who is married to Google co-founder Sergey Brin. Smaller donations came from the likes of Black Lives Matter L.A. co-leader Melina Abdullah and Susan Disney Lord, a granddaughter of Roy Disney, according to campaign finance reports.  

Aside from the fundraising, that the measure even made it to the ballot is evidence of its support. After Kuehl co-authored the motion, the Board pushed it forward in a series of three votes in just three weeks. “At any point, they could have been like, ‘You know, we just don’t want to go through with it,’ and we don’t get the votes,” said Hernandez. “We felt we got to shoot our shot. I mean, the worst they could tell us is no, and if it’s a no, then you know, we’ve tried.”

It helped that by the time the County Board of Supervisors voted on the measure, the campaign already had broad buy-in from dozens of organizations, including the United Way of Greater Los Angeles, the regional offshoot of the international fundraising juggernaut aimed at ending poverty. The charity might seem like an unlikely member of Reimagine L.A.’s steering committee, along with more progressive, activist-oriented groups such as La Defensa and Black Lives Matter L.A. But Elise Buik, its longtime president and CEO, said she felt compelled to start thinking about how budgets reflect “issues of system racism” after attending protests in the wake of Floyd’s murder. “I did a lot of reflections of my own: Where have I been? Why have I not looked at our work more through the lens of racial equity, and racial justice?” Buik explained. “I feel my eyes have been opened in a whole different way. And look, I have a lot of regret that that didn’t happen sooner.” 

The measure also has the backing of academic heavyweights, including Kelly Lytle Hernandez, a UCLA professor of history and African American studies who last year was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant for her scholarship on mass incarceration. She and Bryan, along with others at UCLA’s Million Dollar Hoods data project, which analyzes the fiscal, geographic, and racial impacts of policing and mass incarceration, co-authored reports that helped inform the proposed charter amendment. “That kind of research has been really important at providing a new way of looking at the cost of mass incarceration and how many opportunities we have to reallocate funds away from police and jails and into the social services and support systems that we know build thriving families and communities,” she said.  

The historian, who serves as faculty director of Million Dollar Hoods, believes the passage of Measure J would be “unprecedented,” but she’s reluctant to claim victory—even if the measure does pass. “It’s a great start. It’s a downpayment, it’s a possibility, it’s an opening at the beginning, but it cannot be the end,” she said, adding that the Measure J must be part of a broader, more sustained campaign to reduce jail populations and police budgets while reinvesting in community services. “Across the United States, law enforcement is highly localized, and so this means it’s like all these different puzzle pieces will need to line up to really reach comprehensive change.”

If successful, Measure J—which could take up to four years to fully phase in—won’t magically solve all of Los Angeles’ layered crises. Advocates and elected officials alike will still need to contend with a rogue sheriff, a deadly police force, a gargantuan jail and prison system, and a severe shortage of affordable housing that has forced tens of thousands into homelessness. But the measure would accomplish something that even some of the most well-attended protests in other cities haven’t: a minimum guarantee of funding for programs and services that would benefit the most vulnerable populations, including communities of color that are disproportionately targeted by police and wrangled into the criminal justice system. It is a way to sidestep the polarization surrounding last summer’s police brutality protests and instead shift the conversation—and ultimately, the budget—toward the issues most people, perhaps Villanueva aside, can agree on. 

“No one believes something’s possible until it’s been done,” said Bryan, who is cautiously optimistic that the ballot measure could be replicated in other jurisdictions. “Here in L.A., we’ve always had the imagination to go first, so that’s really what we’re doing—and I do think others will follow.”