Los Angeles City Attorney Says Listening is Key to Developing Effective Community-Based Programming

In this New Thinking podcast, Los
Angeles City Attorney
Mike Feuer discusses his plans for community-based solutions to problems like truancy,
gun violence, and prison overcrowding. (July 2014)


MIKE FEUER: For leaders and for elected officials, speaking skills are highly overvalued relative to listening
skills, which are frequently under-valued.

ROBERT V. WOLF: Hi, I’m Rob Wolf, director of communication
at the Center for Court Innovation. Welcome to another New Thinking Podcast. Today I’m speaking with Los Angeles
City Attorney Mike Feuer, who is here today at the Center for Court Innovation, and he’s visited some of our
projects and met with some of our staff. Welcome to New Thinking.

FEUER: Oh, it’s great to
be here and I really appreciate the work of the center.

WOLF: That’s great to hear. Let me
ask a little bit about your role as the city attorney. A lot of municipalities have a City Attorney but usually their
role is a little different in each jurisdiction. So why don’t you tell me what your responsibilities are as
the Los Angeles City Attorney.

FEUER: Sure. In Los Angeles there are three city wide elected officials:
the mayor, the city attorney, and the controller. So I’ve held office since July of last year. Prior to that time,
I’d been a member of the state legislature, a city council member, I used to run a public interest law firm.
The city attorney’s job is very expansive. In addition to writing every law in the city, the City Attorney advises
the mayor, the council, the city’s departments and commissions on every legal issue that has any relationship
to public policy. The City Attorney defends litigation when the city is sued. The City Attorney uses civil litigation
as a sword on behalf of the city or the people of the state of California on a wide array of issues. Environmental
justice, issues of sub-housing or elder abuse, consumer fraud. My role also is a prosecutorial role. The City Attorney
prosecutes every misdemeanor in the city of Los Angeles, tens of thousands of such matters each year. And they might
include issues from drunk driving to domestic violence, to assault and sexual abuse, to vandalism and levels of quality
of life crime in communities that have a significant impact on whether a business chooses to site in a neighborhood
or whether kids can walk safely to school. The City Attorney also can initiate legislation in Los Angeles, and at
the state and federal levels also.

WOLF: Sounds like there’s a huge opportunity to bring
new ideas to the table, to make changes. So I wonder, as somebody who’s relatively newly elected, not even a
year in office, what your vision is for possible reforms.

FEUER: Sure. I view our offices role,
be it on the civil side or the criminal side, or the course of giving advice or counsel to other officials in government,
to the core being the same. And that is, we’re here to solve a problem. I view misdemeanor crimes that way.
Have we found a way to demonstrate to the community that the intervention of the justice system has made a tangible
difference in their quality of life? And through that lens, I view a whole array of potential innovations that I’m
here to explore at the center. It’s important to find ways to divert low level offenders from the traditional
justice system, which formerly—and in fact, in many cases still—

relies on incarceration. But
in real life in California and in Los Angeles, to potential for incarceration is rather nominal. There is a mandate
to diminish prison overcrowding. It’s also true that there’s been a dramatic diminution in resources for
the state court system, and that’s been pronounced in Los Angeles where we’ve seen the closing, not just
of courtrooms, but of courthouses as well. So what I want to find are innovations that include community based justice.
A neighborhood court system is something that I’m hoping to put in place in Los Angeles, under which low level offenders
go through a process where a panel of community mediators, residents who volunteer to participate under the supervision
of experienced staff members, sit with an offender who’s agreed to circumvent the traditional process, and identify
for that offender the sorts of services that offender ought to perform in the neighborhood to help rectify the problems
that he or she has caused, and also to prescribe for that offender the intervention of social services that are likely
to reduce the possibility that the offender is going to repeat the crime, or the crimes later on. I’m concerned
about particular classes of problems. I’ve assigned somebody to be in charge of school safety-related issues
in my office, and I’m looking for the best ideas around the country for how we can create, in Los Angeles, a robust
sense of safety in and around school sites. It’s essential because, among other reasons, we want to encourage
kids to go to school. We have a truancy issue in every major jurisdiction in the country. It’s true in Los Angeles.
I have in mind to pursue a truancy-based court, a truancy court system where we involve peers of the truant child,
along with his or her parents, and perhaps other community adults, all of whom would come together to try to find
solutions to what, traditionally, has been treated with punishment, as opposed to a constructive approach to have
that child return to school. I’m also here to look at preventative approaches. The justice system is a blunt
instrument frequently, and many of us would benefit tremendously if we could prevent crimes in the first place. I’m
very focused on gun violence prevention, dealing with gang activity in neighborhoods in ways that transcend the usual
supression-based model, which is an essential component, but not a sustainable way to deal with the activity in a

WOLF: What’s your strategy for enlisting all the different partners that you’ll
need, whether it’s police or the court system itself, or the schools, or I can imagine there’s quite a
vast range in each of these areas that you’ve described—whether it’s misdemeanor offending, or around schools,
or it’s addressing prevention of gun violence. Do you have a way in mind to begin to bring about what sounds
like kind of systemic change?

FEUER: Yes, you’ve hit it on the head. It’s important
for us to engage stakeholders at every level in this process. I’m a very neighborhood-based official and I have
had, in my prior jobs, a very strong affinity for working closely with people at the community level to view life
through the lens of their experience, listen carefully to what their priorities are, and try to effectuate those.
And that’s certainly going to be necessary in this process what I’m working on now. So I’ve been present
at multiple community meetings, I’ve held well over a hundred such sessions in neighborhoods throughout the
city of Los Angeles in just the first nine months or so of being in office, in audiences large and small, most of
which were devoted to trying to find what matters most to constituents and match those issues up with the resources
of my office. There are institutional partner needs as well. The mayor’s office, the city council, the police
department, the court system are just a few among the many partnerships that are necessary for us to effectuate the
goals that I’ve articulated here. There are also different levels of government besides the local level. I’m
working with state officials on some of these issues. I can see the prospect for engaging at the federal level because
there’s an interest in being a catalyst for innovation at the justice department level, and I’m hoping that
we can try to find some resources that (Inaudible) that can be helpful to us. Private foundations can be instrumental
to affecting some of the change we’re looking to implement here.

WOLF: Is there a possibility
of legislative responses to some of these issues, as opposed to just implementing programmatic response?

FEUER: There sometimes can be. I will say that the innovations that we’re talking about here, neighborhood
courts, focuses on truancy and gun violence prevention, and so forth. One is unlikely to need much new legislation
to accomplish these goals. What we need is a can-do attitude, a spirit of innovation, a sense of creativity and imagination,
a very practical event because ideas are only as good as implementation if you’re in public service, and we
need to be sure that we’re taking advantage of the best of what each of our partners has to offer. I often have
said, you know, for lawyers and for elected officials, speaking skills are highly overvalued relative to listening
skills, which are frequently under-valued. Much of the effectiveness of our exercise is going to be contingent on
our capacity to listen carefully to other stakeholders, to good ideas that emanate from others.

Thank you very much for taking the time out of your visit. I know you’ve had a very tight schedule, so I appreciate
your taking a little time to speak with me.

FEUER: It’s always a pleasure to work with you,
and I hope to be invited back.

WOLF: I’m sure you will be. I’ve been speaking with the
Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, who has been visiting our programs in New York, learning about what we’re
doing here, getting ideas to bring back to California. I’m Rob Wolf, director of communication for at the Center
for Court Innovation. To hear more New Thinking podcasts, please visit our website at www.courtinnovation.org or
you can also listen to us on iTunes, and subscribe, and write a review if you want, actually. Thank you very much
for listening.

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