Poll: What DWP can learn from LAPD

A new Pat Brown Institute/Cal State Los Angeles poll of 501 registered voters in L.A. asked for opinions on two important city departments: the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the Department of Water and Power (DWP). 

For decades, the LAPD has been a critical factor in city politics and government, often dividing the L.A. community right down the middle on racial, ethnic and ideological grounds. Earlier this year, the DWP, long a quiet powerhouse in city politics, became a key factor in Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s defeat of Wendy Greuel, his opponent in the mayoral race, when her support by the DWP union led to charges that she was too subject to union influence.

In some ways, the new poll suggests public attitudes toward the two departments are mirror images of one another. 

Over the last half century, the LAPD has gone from being the most admired institution in the city, in the 1950s, to a divisive force admired by conservatives and criticized by minority communities and liberals, and whose actions helped spur two massive civil disorders, in 1965 and 1992, to its current status as a more community-oriented, well-liked institution. 

By contrast, the DWP operated generally out of the public eye. Its core critics today are among the more conservative voters. But as a result of those criticisms, the DWP is now facing an unprecedented degree of public scrutiny.

The LAPD registers majority approval in the poll, by a 64 to 30 percent margin. But even after years of reform and greater emphasis on community outreach, minority communities still report less-favorable opinions than whites. Roughly a quarter of African-Americans (23 percent) and Latinos (25 percent) strongly disapproved, compared to 10 percent among whites. Overall, 15 percent strongly disapproved.

Those under the age of 45 were more than twice as likely (23 percent) as those 45 and older to strongly disapprove of the department, and renters (21 percent) strongly disapproved more than homeowners (10 percent). In other words, even a more broadly popular police department still has work to do with some sectors of the community. But certainly compared to the profound polarization that once marked the LAPD’s standing in the city, things have vastly improved and the department is going in the right direction.

A smaller majority of voters approve of the work of the DWP (55 to 38 percent) than of the LAPD, and roughly a quarter of voters strongly disapprove of the department. Those voters who strongly disapproved of the DWP were most likely to be residents of the San Fernando Valley, to identify as conservative (37 percent), to be white (30 percent) and to be homeowners (33 percent, compared to 23 percent for renters). 

 For these voters, the DWP appears to represent what they don’t like about city government. Seventy-eight percent of those voters who strongly disapproved of the DWP endorsed the view that government protects special interests “instead of people like me.”  

Unlike the LAPD, with its central role in Los Angeles political debates, the DWP has not entirely come into focus for Los Angeles voters. Future opinion could go either way. For the police department, majority popularity with minority dissent turned into majority opposition, when the department’s actions continued unchecked and the wider community came to see what was wrong. It was reform, often resisted by the department and its allies, that laid the groundwork for the department’s current popularity.

 The first challenge for Garcetti as mayor was the negotiation of a new contract with DWP’s employees.  The intense negotiations were heavily covered by local media. But about three quarters of registered voters polled said they did not know enough about those negotiations to have an opinion of the mayor’s handling of the situation. Los Angeles City Hall issues can sometimes take a long time to reach public awareness.

But the DWP cannot take comfort in the limited public attention thus far, or the fact that only a quarter of the voters expressed strong opposition. There is likely to be considerable debate over department transparency, its “work rules” and other issues, with vigorous attention from the mayor, City Council, the controller and the media.

If these explorations turn up damaging information and if reforms are not made, a negative image could solidify and spread well beyond the core group of voters who are already critical. That is certainly what happened to the LAPD decades ago. However, if the city government can successfully reform the practices that have frustrated accountability, there is room for positive views of the department to flower. The lesson of the LAPD for the DWP is that reform, however painful, has a reward at the end — the positive regard of the voters.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute at California State University, Los Angeles, is also director of the PBI/CSULA Poll.