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Los Angeles Voters Reject 5,000 More Cops; Invest In Clear Ocean Instead

by John E. Dannenberg

Los Angeles, California voters, in a November 2004 campaign marred by scare tactics, rejected a 1/2 cent sales tax measure (Measure A) that would have raised $560 million per year to pay for 5,000 added cops. At the same time, the voters approved a $500 million bond measure for improvements to the city's storm drainage system to prevent polluted runoff from entering the Pacific Ocean.

With a current staff of 9,099 city police sheriff deputies to serve 3.8 million residents, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and L.A.P.D. Chief William Bratton tried to sell the public on the idea that they were understaffed compared to cities like Chicago, which has 13,500 cops for 2.9 million people Indeed, they were so understaffed that in the past 2 ? years, 119,577 prisoners had been let out of L.A. County jails early - often doing only 10% of their sentence - because the jails were full, Further analysis showed that 62,090 of those left jail within just a day or two, notwithstanding sentences of many months for burglary, drunk driving and minor assaults. Baca lamented that the jail population had to be reduced from 22,000 to 17,500 over the past few years due to $160 million in budget cuts.

Post election analysis identified three factors that seemed to doom the tax measure. First, the city's major crime rate - as reported by the FBI _ dropped from 652,939 in 1993 to 395,963 in 2003.

Second, a tally by precinct revealed that while Measure A passed by the 2/3 margin necessary in most of L.A., it's failure was tied to an ambivalent showing by African-American voters in south L.A. -- inc1uding some backlash from the Rodney King police beating -- sufficient to drag the countywide tally down to a failing 64%. Many African-Americans interviewed stated their distrust of police and racial profiling. Even African-American Congresswoman Maxine Waters and Senator Tom Hayden urged a no-vote in pre-election mailers. In contrast, heavily Latino neighborhoods voted overwhelmingly in support, where post-election opinions related concern over "gangs on every corner" that needed c1eaning up.

Third, the proponents used knowingly false data in their media campaign in a crude attempt to scare the voters - which apparently backfired. The website for Measure A used headline fragments and an article from an Arkansas newspaper to synthesize false headlines. "Crime rates are at an all-time high. More police needed on the streets," was followed by "L.A. Streets no longer safe for children."

Not only were the purported facts outright false, the language was literally stitched together from pieces of a year-old story in the Leader newspaper of Jacksonville, Arkansasmuch like a stereotype ransom note made of pasted newspaper clippings. And that article, as run in whole, was about transportation planning in the Little Rock suburb not police understaffing.

Rick Taylor, advertising consultant running Measure A, initially defended this ploy, calling it merely "a graphic" to illustrate the crime problem, and not meant to represent actual news. "It's not a big deal," he said. Nonetheless, he pulled the material from the website and later apologized for use of misleading headlines and stories. But before being removed, it was used in an image on the website that faded into pictures of Baca and Bratton urging a "yes" vote on Measure A.

Nancy Snow, an assistant professor of communications at Cal State Fullerton, said of the false headlines that misrepresenting facts to voters, while not uncommon in campaigns, often boomerangs with critical thinkers. Here, voters obviously were aware that fecal matter runs downhill, when they rejected Measure A but overwhelmingly approved an equal monetary investment to sanitize storm drainage off, contaminated by cat and dog litter that frequently renders famed L.A. beaches unusable due to the resulting oceanic bacteria blooms.

Source: Los Angeles Times.

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