Hahn, Villaraigosa Exchange Increasingly Bitter Accusations
Hahn, Villaraigosa Exchange Increasingly Bitter Accusations
April 27, 2001
Politics: Approach to fighting crime is a key point of contention. But claims do little to illuminate the issues.
By GEOFFREY MOHAN, MATEA GOLD and JAMES RAINEY, Times Staff Writers
The issue of crime took center stage in the race for mayor of Los Angeles on Thursday, a day of nasty charges and countercharges that emphasized both the philosophical differences between City Atty. James K. Hahn and former legislator Antonio Villaraigosa and the importance both their campaigns attach to the politically volatile issue of public safety.
Hahn unleashed the day of intemperate jousting when he stood outside police headquarters and accused Villaraigosa of being “completely out of step with the people of Los Angeles” and showing “a lack of concern and a lack of compassion for victims of crime.”
Villaraigosa would later retaliate that the city attorney was “creating a climate of fear” and engaging in the inaccurate and divisive campaigning style of the late Mayor Sam Yorty. Hahn then challenged Villaraigosa to be “man enough” to face up to his legislative record.
But those superheated pronouncements did little to clarify the candidates’ far more complex and nuanced law enforcement records. Villaraigosa’s record clearly has been shaped by his background as a liberal, one-time ACLU board president. But Hahn and his advisors have sought to amplify that profile, presenting a limited and sometimes distorted portion of Villaraigosa’s positions.
Hahn’s own record on crime, meanwhile, has been built largely around a controversial and difficult-to-measure crime control method: the imposition of injunctions against gang members in troubled neighborhoods.
As the two men head toward a June 5 runoff election, much of their competition will be over the large bloc of moderate to conservative voters who voted for other candidates earlier this month.
After days of feints and veiled comments about Villaraigosa’s record, Hahn used police headquarters as a backdrop to detail accusations that he will probably hammer repeatedly in the coming weeks. Hahn gave his version of his foe’s “abysmal” crime record, releasing a seven-page document reporting Villaraigosa’s positions on more than 30 Assembly bills on issues as diverse as pornography, penalties for rapists and post-conviction oversight of child molesters.
A review by The Times found, however, that though the former legislator approached many crime issues from the perspective of a civil libertarian, he was not nearly as far from the mainstream as Hahn says. And in an often-used campaign technique, Hahn chose to highlight only certain of Villaraigosa’s votes, taking many of them out of context.
Hahn, for instance, referred to Villaraigosa as the sole vote against an initial version of Megan’s Law, which allows the public disclosure of the identity of convicted sex offenders. (Hahn’s campaign literature does note, in less prominent type, that Villaraigosa eventually voted for the final version.)
In fact, records show that 52 legislators–including a number of Republicans–voted against various versions of Megan’s Law during the seven-month period in which it worked its way through the state Legislature.
And at the time of Villaraigosa’s first vote, serious constitutional challenges were being raised against the original Megan’s Law in New Jersey.
The final version of the bill set up a “tiered” system for notifying the public about various categories of sex offenders, and included provisions to combat vigilantism generated by disclosure of the information.
“In fact, while I did vote against one version, I voted for a tougher version,” Villaraigosa said Thursday. “I voted for 20 bills related to Megan’s Law in the course of my tenure in the Legislature.”
Hahn also highlighted Villaraigosa’s “no” vote on a 1996 child pornography bill extending existing obscene-material laws to images stored on compact disks.
But on the day of his negative vote on the CD porn bill, Villaraigosa voted for a similar measure that contained a more detailed definition of “obscene.” The alternative covered all computer images, according to legislative records.
On other sex crime matters, Hahn notes, Villaraigosa was the lone Assembly member voting against a 1995 bill, later passed and signed into law, that allows violent sex offenders to be committed to mental hospitals after they serve their prison time. He also voted against a pilot program to monitor released child molesters.
Hahn campaign spokesman Kam Kuwata denied that Villaraigosa’s record had been distorted, saying that most of his positions were not reversed by other votes. And he noted that the former legislator often voted with just a handful of his colleagues to oppose crime bills.
Some Votes Made Statutes Tougher
Villaraigosa said he could not recall specific details of the bills and why he opposed them. His campaign noted, however, that in 1999 he also voted for a bill placing sex offenders under “intensive and specialized parole supervision.”
Among Villaraigosa’s other sex crime votes that toughened statutes: He voted for a law allowing judges to have stalkers register as sex offenders. And in 1997, he voted to allow life imprisonment for those convicted of kidnapping children and others for sexual crimes.
“The idea that I’m soft on those issues just doesn’t reflect the record,” Villaraigosa said.
Some of Hahn’s claims about Villaraigosa’s record, however, are clearly true. An ardent opponent of capital punishment, Villaraigosa cast a “no” vote on extending the death penalty to cover gang-related, drive-by and carjacking homicides. Indeed, beyond the arguments over context, Villaraigosa’s voting record offers ample evidence of his philosophical differences with Hahn.
“He was one of the few in the Legislature who, on crime bills, seemed to take a measured approach and seemed to look at the big picture, to understand that the real way to deal with the crime problem was to focus on the causes,” said Mary Broderick, executive director of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, which generally supports liberal causes and opposes much crime legislation.
Villaraigosa frequently found himself at odds with police unions, victims rights groups and prosecutors.
“There are some legislators who we know will be on the opposite side of our issues,” said Susan Fisher, executive director of the Doris Tate Crime Victims Bureau, a nonprofit organization that frequently supports crime bills in Sacramento. “Right off the cuff, I’d say he’s not someone we would go to for support.”
No issue reveals more of these differences than the question of how to respond to street gangs.
Villaraigosa cast a series of negative votes on extending and strengthening the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention (STEP) Act, which was written by Hahn’s office.
Among other provisions, STEP enhances felony convictions for a defendant who “actively participates in any criminal street gang” knowing that its members commit crimes, and who “willfully promotes, furthers or assists” fellow members in the commission of crimes.
Hahn’s office has hailed STEP as an important tool in a frontal attack on gangs as criminal organizations. Critics, including some defense attorneys who repeatedly have filed court challenges to convictions won under the STEP legislation, argue that it punishes defendants for the crimes of others, or that the burden of proof is too low.
Villaraigosa sided with those critics and against a number of law enforcement groups.
“I voted against that bill [STEP] and others because I was concerned they weren’t effective in addressing the gang problem,” Villaraigosa said. “It’s not enough to sound tough. We’ve got to be smart with what we do on gangs. That means tough penalties but also smart prevention programs.”
In contrast to Hahn’s advocacy of STEP, Villaraigosa has urged prevention and intervention efforts.
“I think we see those kids sometimes–you know, the ones with the bald heads and the tattoos around the neck–and you kind of see them as ‘the other,’ ” he told a group of USC students Monday. “You forget that, in fact, they’re real-life human beings, that if we invested in them, maybe we could turn them around.”
A Bit of Common Ground on Gangs
Among the programs that the two candidates can apparently both agree on is CLEAR, or Community Law Enforcement and Recovery. Villaraigosa helped in the Legislature to create the program, designed to let police fight gangs across jurisdictional boundaries. The law also won a warm endorsement from Hahn’s office, which contributes several staff members to prosecuting gang members ensnared by the CLEAR task force.
Hahn has sought to build much of his own reputation as a crime fighter on anti-gang injunctions, an approach that he said Thursday he “invented.” Those injunctions, however, have not yet yielded conclusive results.
Hahn was one of the first to use the tactic of suing a gang for being a public nuisance to crack down on gang members whose drug dealing and daily presence on street corners had left residents in some neighborhoods intimidated and fearful.
In 1987 Hahn filed his first injunction, against the Playboy Gangster Crips. Now there are nine injunctions in the city and about 320 gang members currently bound by court orders.
The injunctions severely restrict gang members in certain areas from specific behavior such as congregating in public, carrying cell phones or pagers, entering private property without permission, and standing on rooftops. Gang members who violate the injunctions face up to six months in jail.
Hahn has touted the program as a way to break a gang’s control of a terrorized neighborhood, restore a sense of control for residents and reduce crime.
“What I like about gang injunctions is that they’re the breathing space that a community needs so we can focus on other kinds of quality-of-life programs,” he said Thursday. “I think it’s an effective, long-lasting way of fighting crime.”
Villaraigosa said he supports gang injunctions “in a very limited sense,” but believes in a greater emphasis on prevention programs.
Other city leaders, including City Council members, have praised the program and supported Hahn’s efforts to get more resources to implement injunctions.
There has been little evidence, however, of whether the tactic has been a success. The city attorney’s office acknowledges that it is difficult to track whether crime has gone down because of these efforts. And much of the thrust of the program is to create a greater sense of safety and peace in a neighborhood–factors that are difficult to quantify.
Supporters of the technique cite anecdotal evidence from police officers and residents, who say the injunctions have pushed gang members off the streets and made the community feel safer.
In addition, prosecutors say, convictions for violating the injunctions have tapered off because gang members have been forced to stop the behavior that intimidated residents.
In some of the areas with gang injunctions, crime has indeed gone down–but the entire city experienced significant declines in crime since 1994, making it difficult to know how much of the decrease can be attributed to the court orders.
In the southwest area, home to two injunctions, gang crime went down about 40% from the end of 1996 to the end of 1999, according to Hahn’s office. In North Hills, police said violent crime dropped dramatically immediately following the injunction there against the Langdon Street gang in May 1999.
But independent analysis of the injunctions has been rare.
“I certainly don’t have a sense on how well they work, because there is no data,” said Cheryl Maxson, a USC professor who studied an injunction in Inglewood that was not fully implemented, one of the few reports on the issue yet conducted.
A limited study of Los Angeles County gang injunctions by UCLA public policy professor Jeffrey Grogger found that in the first year after their implementation, violent crime in those neighborhoods went down by 5% to 10%. But Grogger cautions that his work, released in July, did not examine the long-term effect of the technique, or its effect on reducing the public nuisance aspect of gangs, one of the main goals of the program.
The use of gang injunctions has been roundly criticized by the ACLU and other civil libertarians, who claim that prohibiting certain people from otherwise legal behavior infringes on constitutional rights.
Hahn conceded that gang injunctions are not the solution for every neighborhood, but he said their judicious use has been giving many residents a feeling of greater security–allowing for the institution of a whole range of other social service and recreation programs.
“It is strict, but when you realize what goes on in these communities, it’s necessary,” Hahn said.
Another Backer to Be Announced
The topic of public safety promised to be on the agenda again today, as Villaraigosa planned to announce an endorsement from another prominent law enforcement official. Hahn’s advisors said their review of Villaraigosa’s record had only begun.
Villaraigosa’s complaint that Hahn was campaigning like former Mayor Yorty also had the potential to resonate in the campaign. The former Assembly speaker accused Hahn of taking “a page right out of Sam Yorty.”
“It’s an attempt to create a climate of fear around my candidacy in this city,” said Villaraigosa, who would be the first Latino mayor of Los Angeles in 130 years. “Sam Yorty ran a campaign against Tom Bradley that misrepresented Bradley’s record on public safety issues and Jim Hahn is doing the same thing to me, trying to suggest I somehow support gangs, rapists and child molesters.”
Villaraigosa said his comments were not intended to accuse Hahn of racial divisiveness, as Yorty tried to use race against the African American Bradley in 1969 and 1973.
But an incredulous Hahn said that comparing him to Yorty was “unbelievable” and that Villaraigosa’s voting record in the Assembly is fair game in the final six weeks of the mayor’s race.
He also noted that he stood side by side with City Council members Nick Pacheco and Alex Padilla on Thursday, both of whom endorse Hahn and agreed with his assessment that Villaraigosa has not been tough enough on the crime issue.
“It’s insulting to me that he would even go there,” Hahn said of the Yorty comparison. “This man has a voting record, and if he isn’t man enough to talk about his own voting record, he should get out of the race.