By James Preston Allen, Publisher
Watching City Attorney Mike Feuer explain his goals for the Neighborhood Prosecutor program was in sharp contrast compared to the hubris of what I remember from former City Attorney Carmen Trutanich.
The difference being like a cat in an antique store versus a bull in a china shop. Feuer, is both a politician and a lawyer and doesn’t apologize for being either. His quaint, slightly old fashion, even liberal, ideal that the law should work for the common citizen and not just as a cudgel to protect the rich and powerful, was refreshing.
Then, I was struck by the oddly named, “Neighborhood Prosecutors,” the legal advocates that Feuer is in process of dispatching to the city’s 16 police divisions, including Harbor Division. This inherited title could be misinterpreted in one of several ways other than what it’s supposed to mean.
What does this neighborhood prosecutor do exactly? Everything from nuisance abatement on slumlords to building code enforcement, and from settling neighbor complaints on gas powered leaf blowers to animal control problems. Do you have a quality of life issue? Call the neighborhood prosecutor at your local police station.
They really should be called “legal advocates” though. Their job mostly involves dispute resolution, coordination of city services to promote community problem solving, and assistance for the city so that it may live up to its promise of providing a safe and secure community, as opposed to prosecuting anyone. Or are they just carrying out the second half of the pledge, “to protect and to serve,” something that Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck has been promising in the police departments “community based policing” policy this past five years?
Clearly many of the senior lead officers at the LAPD have been doing this job for years, albeit without the legal tools to do much more than file reports, write tickets or mediate problems. They do an earnest job, but as any experienced police officer will readily admit, “You can’t arrest your way out of every problem.” Nor should we, the citizens, expect them to. The overzealous willingness to use handcuffs over the past three decades, along with the added onus that three strikes and zero tolerance laws has only exacerbated the overcrowded conditions in our prisons.
Our collective misguided sense of justice has lead to abuses in the Los Angeles County Central Jail that are only now being exposed by federal investigators. But that is the subject for another related column.
Clearly, there is only so much that a neighborhood prosecutor, or for that matter, the LAPD can do. At a recent community meeting in which Harbor Division’s Neighborhood Prosecutor, Lauren Halligen, was introduced, one citizen brought up the prevalence of “skateboard bombing” by our youths reveling in the thrill of downhill shredding through stop signed intersections at their own peril. An ordinance recently passed prohibiting “bombing” with measures that we adults find reasonable and necessary as skateboard culture continues to expand. Yet, from what I have observed, there is hardly a police officer who will take the time to pursue a group of bombing juveniles even when it happens right in front of them, unless there is an accident resulting in bodily injury. These are crimes that no one really wants to prosecute but causes continual alarm.
They are not quite as annoying though as the prevalence of the green cross medical marijuana shops that grow like weeds in the sidewalk cracks. The problem here, as the city attorney explained, is that when the citizens of Los Angeles passed measure D in 2012, the citizens didn’t pass a law that regulated pot shops so much as making all of the pot shops “illegal.”
Measure D, he explained, only allows for an “affirmative” defense by these businesses once they are cited and prosecuted. Because of this, the city hasn’t had a definitive list until now. The city attorney’s office now has a list of the 42 (or maybe 43) medical marijuana shops in the Harbor Division territory. The complaints by some neighbors has brought enforcement on some of these shops and the popping up of others in a curious whack-a-mole kind of hide-n-seek enforcement.
This would seem like a curious kind of exercise given that public opinion on full legalization seems to be trending towards a statewide Colorado-type proposition that would make local enforcement somewhat irrelevant in the near future. Still, the issue of community standards, nuisance abatement and quality of life seem to be the only things this neighborhood advocate, as I will suggest they be called, can get her hands on. The more overarching issues of opening the Harbor Division jail, or bringing back a working courthouse to our local jurisdiction are still beyond the reach of both the City Attorney’s Office, LAPD or even the mayor and city council. And both of these are more of a crime to the general population of the Harbor Area than most anything else.
We have become complacent with our lack of access to the justice system. We have become convinced that we don’t have the power or the political will to change the trajectory of budget deficits. We have become convinced that we can’t influence our state legislature, our superior courts or Gov. Jerry Brown that there is an inherent injustice taking place.
However, City Attorney Mike Feuer, as our advocate for the people of Los Angeles, knows how this gets done. And, if he wants us to support his Neighborhood Prosecutor initiative, he needs to be our community advocate for equal access to the larger justice system.