Culture

Defund The Police Activist Albert Corado On The LAPD’s Killing Of His Sister And The Movement’s Progress

One of the most important things the George Floyd protests have done is to make “Defund the Police” part of mainstream discourse. The push has grown out of a paradox where, in the face of three decades of declining violent crime (which actually peaked way back in the early 90s), police departments have become ever more militarized. If you disagree with the premise that our police are overly militarized, I would remind you that we once let Steven Seagal bulldoze a guy’s house with a tank over a cockfighting allegation.

If one problem is police itching to use all their high-tech weaponry, so the thinking goes, one way to fix it is to take away the money they spend on that weaponry. (One hopes we may eventually apply the same thinking to the actual military). While the defund police movement may have finally found its watershed moment this year (so says Wesley Lowery in this seminal piece for The Atlantic), it’s been building for some time. Along with the high-profile killings of Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, et. al (“too many to list” is an understatement) over the past five years, many of us watched online just this past December when 18 Florida cops unloaded on two robbers on a jam-packed freeway during a car chase, killing a UPS driver who’d been taken hostage and a bystander, along with the two robbers.

About a year before that, the LAPD had chased a murder suspect into a Trader Joe’s parking lot in Los Angeles’ Silverlake neighborhood. The suspect shot at police as he ran towards the door, and on a crowded shopping day, officers returned fire at the entrance to the store. One of the shots hit a store manager, 27-year-old Mely Corado, in the chest, killing her.

That none of the officers involved in these shootings were so much as reprimanded (the Florida ones were even praised by their police chief) speaks volumes about the way we’ve been trained to view police and how police view themselves. Both we and they seem to prioritize “getting the bad guy” over protecting the public. After decades of pop culture feeding us fictional cops taking the law into their own hands, real cops tackling shirtless poor people on Cops, superheroes battling evil, and violent vigilantes “takin’ out the trash,” we’ve arguably recruited a class of police who were largely inspired by ideas of righteous vengeance (see: real policemen’s well-publicized love of The Punisher). And in many cases have folded them into departments with historic ties to white supremacist organizations. This may partly explain the gulf between the way we’ve seen police treat rightwing and leftwing protests in the past month.

These are issues both of culture and of accountability. While police officials repeat “bad apples” like an incantation every time individual officers hurt someone, those same organizations have been notoriously bad at actually removing those “bad apples” lest they spoil the proverbial bin. Daniel Pantaleo, who was caught on video using an illegal chokehold to kill Eric Garner in 2014, wasn’t fired until 2019. Dan Donovan, the DA who couldn’t convince a grand jury to bring charges against Pantaleo, got elected to congress.

This is all personal for Albert Corado, a 31-year-old community organizer who has been at the forefront of fighting for a “People’s Budget” in LA. It was Albert’s sister who was killed when the LAPD fired into that crowded Trader Joe’s. One key aspect of the People’s Budget includes diverting funding away from the police and into other social programs.

Part of the idea is that a lot of the services we currently rely on the police for — mentally ill people in the midst of an episode, unhoused disrupting a business, etc — don’t actually involve fighting bad guys, and thus would be better performed by other agencies. I spoke to Albert this week about the origins and goals of the defund the police movement, and the incident that spurred him to get involved.

So how would you explain the People’s Budget?

It’s an alternative budget to what the mayor had put together and the city council was planning on passing. It’s our way of taking much-needed money from the LAPD, who misuses funds and also just straight-up murders people and buys unnecessary things, and giving it to services and programs that help people. Whether that’s unhoused people or kids, just giving it back to the community instead of just giving it to policing. [The current budget] gives too much power to the police. So we wanted to draft something that would give more power to the people of Los Angeles.

There’s starting to be a little bit of consensus that the police are overly militarized. Is there a way to de-militarize the police?

I mean, listen, personally, I’m an abolitionist. I know that’s a hard sell for some people because as Americans, we’ve been so indoctrinated to believe that we need the police, that any less police or cut in police budgets is going to result in criminals running loose and people being killed and robberies and stuff like that. If we’re going to be realistic, obviously, we’re not going to defund the police overnight. It would take time. It would also take an alternative. So I think a good step is to not let them have military-style weapons. My sister was killed by the LAPD a couple of years ago. The officers who killed her are never going to see the inside of jail cell because they’re protected. My sister was killed while they were pursuing a suspect so they have a built-in immunity. Basically, they lose all accountability. [“Qualified immunity” is a legal doctrine that has been used to shield officers from civil suits.]

So we’re trying to have the conversation of defunding the police. It’s a hard sell for a lot of people so we have to be realistic, but we’re trying to find that compromise. We’re trying to engage people more on the idea. We’re being held hostage by this idea that, “Well, if you take away the police, people run wild.” And I don’t think that’s necessarily the truth. There’s a lot of stuff proving otherwise. The NYPD went on strike not too long ago and crime went down. It’s just a matter of looking for alternatives to giving police high-powered weapons. But I mean, the fact that the phrase “defund the police” is even in the zeitgeist right now is insane to me. That’s something I’d never thought I’d see happen.

When police get calls, are there any statistics on how many calls are actually about catching bad guys and how many are mental health issues or domestic violence calls that they probably don’t want to be on any way?

I’m sure there is, I don’t have them in front of me. I think that what has happened is that police want more money, and so they argue for more power and responsibility. But they have no place in trying to take care of someone who’s having a mental health episode, or even, I mean, unfortunately, I’ve read and known women in my life who have been raped, and the cops don’t do anything. Like you said, a lot of times the cops don’t want to be out there having to approach maybe an unhoused person who’s having a mental health episode. Yet the answer has always been, “more policing, policing is going to take care of everything.”

When your whole ethos as an organization is, “We’re heroes. We’re out here putting our lives on the line,” it doesn’t leave much room for being compassionate. You’re the put upon one. You’re the one that goes out there and puts your life on the line and everyone else just doesn’t ever know what it’s going to be like.

We need, first and foremost, alternatives. If someone is having a mental health episode, you do not call the police. You have a team of people who can do this sort of thing. Police know how to put people in cuffs. They think what they say is supposed to be the commandment so they’ll push you up against the wall if you don’t obey them. They’re not equipped to engage with vulnerable communities.

What are some of the circumstances around your sister’s death and what was the outcome for the officers that were involved?

She was a manager at the Trader Joe’s in Silverlake, I don’t know if you’re familiar with that case. They were chasing a suspect [who ran] inside the store, and so they shot inside the store trying to kill him.

Yeah.

As soon as it happened, I was living in another state and I came home. We knew that night that it was a police officer who shot her. Everybody who was in that store knew that it was the police officer. Officially no one was saying anything that night. They were trying to figure out what happened. But again, my dad was there and a lot of my sister’s friends and coworkers were there and confirm that it was a police bullet. We knew that we were going to have to sue them. We obviously didn’t say anything for a few months because there was a lot of media attention, and it was pretty overwhelming.

Another thing that happened that night was that the LAPD came out and told the LA Times reporter that it was [the suspect], they said that it was him that had killed my sister. They already were trying to wash their hands of it. And then, of course, it came out two days later that it was them. I mean, they knew all along, they were just trying to figure out if there was a way to make it seem like he did it.

So again, we knew that these cops were not going to serve any jail time. Probably the worst thing that happened to them was they had to take a few weeks of paid leave and fill out a lot of time of paperwork and collect the overtime pay. But we filed a lawsuit four months later and… I mean, depositions are being taken and we’re gathering discovery evidence, but it’s been almost two years already and our trial is not even due to start till next March.

Obviously there’s a problem with accountability. What are some of the specific barriers to accountability that people might be trying to change?

Well, I think one of the major things is that the police commission, they’re the ones that decide whether or not a shooting is in policy, right? If [the officers] follow protocol, if they did everything they could before they have to shoot. They weigh a bunch of factors in making the decision. So if they make a decision that says, “This was not in policy,” then they can then pursue some sort of disciplinary or whatever sort of action against the officer. But again, from the get-go, even at the time of not being super familiar with the way this stuff worked like I am now, we knew that they were not going to do anything. Again, it’s this thing of like, “Well, they were chasing a suspect and it was collateral damage.”

I think that the fact that those are built in to protect cops and you rarely, rarely see cops be held responsible for that, it says a lot about how we view police officers. We want to protect them at all costs, and if some innocent people die, then that’s how it is. If I could sue them to put these people in prison, I’d rather do that. That’s what counts to me. But you also have a system in LA and in a lot of places where the district attorney — who can try to bring charges — loves cops and gets money donated to them by the police union — like a million dollars last year. (An LA Times analysis of public records found that law enforcement unions gave nearly $2.2 million in contributions to outside committees benefiting Los Angeles DA Jackie Lacey.)

You have so many roadblocks before you would even be able to bring charges against an officer and it’s designed that way because again, cops are seen to be the heroes. The system is built to protect cops at all costs. People just don’t know what it’s like to lose someone to this or what they would be saying that if a person that they loved died the same way.

Were you guys able to access any of the police’s disciplinary records that were involved in the shooting?

No. See, that’s it. Because of it being “in policy,” that kind of closes a lot of doors. We wanted to know like their training packet and any prior instances of use of force, and that’s just not something that’s available to us. (In the time since this interview, the New York legislature voted to repeal 50-A, a measure shielding police disciplinary records from the public.)

The whole fraternal order of police, this brotherhood, this thing of we’re all in this to protect one another and nobody else, it’s infected people in the city to now where you see some of the city attorneys buddying up to cops and traveling with their own LAPD escort. The LAPD has such immense power and everyone’s so scared of them in City Hall that no one is ever going to stand up to them, and definitely not Mayor Garcetti.

What are some places that we could spend the money where it’d be more useful [than the police department]?

I mean, honestly, I think that the biggest problem the city had before COVID, before the protests, and the National Guard being here, is the homelessness issue. We have 60,000, likely more than 60,000, especially now after COVID, we have 60,000 to 70,000 unhoused people. We have probably three or four times that in vacant apartment units. And we’re constantly building things. We’re constantly building buildings that sit half empty because people can’t afford them.

My first foray into activism and organizing was through homelessness outreach and I think that we need to spend it on housing people. I’ve seen people from 19, 20-year-olds to even in Echo Park, there’s an older man named Ramon who was pushing 70. And he’s walking around with a cane and I saw the cops try to tear down his tent and throw away his every belonging. So that would be my first area of giving more money. And then stuff like infrastructure, fixing the city and expanding transit.

What about the Defund the Police movement are you most proud of?

I think our biggest victory is that now people, regular-ass people, are engaging with the city budget. I think that that’s not going to change. I’m happy because that means we’re not going to let this shit slide. By the time next year hits, when that budget comes out, there’s going to be another big fight. It’s either going to be, we’re going to put so much pressure on them that they’re going to present a budget that’s actually acceptable, or there’s going to be another big fight and we’re going to take it to the street again. So it’s up to them.

Read more about the People’s Budget here. Vince Mancini is on Twitter.

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