Below is the second segment of a three part series examining the history of police brutality in Los Angeles. This series was originally a paper submitted for the Sociology of Power and Authority class taught by Isaac Ariail Reed at University of Virginia. The previous piece laid the groundwork detailing the corruption in the LAPD through the 50s, 60s, and 70s, up to the election of the first black mayor, Tom Bradley, who had ambitions to curtail police brutality and corruption but was ultimately unable to check the power of the LAPD.
Mayor Tom Bradley’s personal interests, including gubernatorial ambition, contributed to his failure in reforming the Department, the Los Angeles police had an extraordinary power that must be taken into account.
The LAPD’s obstinate independence began with the ascendance of William Parker to Chief of Police in 1950. Before then, the Department was notoriously corrupt and tied to corporate interests; its main jobs were shutting down union strikes and other forms of political dissent. Under Parker, the LAPD developed its own political support and refused to bow to criticism from other branches of government or interest groups. Parker also secured his own lifetime tenure, using LA’s new ironclad civil service statute.
One of the reasons for increasing support of the LAPD was growing white anxiety. From 1940 to 1950, the Black population in LA nearly tripled, and Parker capitalized on these changes. After the Watts Riots shook LA in 1965, Parker spoke forebodingly on a local television station, warning that “it is estimated that by 1970, 45% of Los Angeles will be Negro… If you want any protection for your home and family…you’re going to have to support a strong police department. If you don’t, God help you.”
Chief Daryl Gates
Parker organized the LAPD into “top-down, paramilitary organization…trained to act as an army in occupation.” Daryl Gates, Chief of Police from 1987 to 1992, continued the war-mongering attitude and entrenched the mentality within the LAPD. In 1990, when testifying in front of the Senate Judiciary committee, he stated that casual drug users “should be taken out and shot” as part of the War on Drugs, as any drug use was “treasonous” to the country.
Though the harsh rhetoric was off-putting to outsiders, Gates was beloved as a leader. He was utterly loyal to the institution of the LAPD, unwaveringly defending officers that beat, shot, or assaulted residents. By eschewing political concerns, Gates was “made himself a martyr within the LAPD, the guy who’d stepped up and died for their sins.” In return, policemen felt immense pride and loyalty to the Department. From the moment they entered the LAPD Academy, they were taught that LA Police were the “elite of the enforcement community…the best of the best.” This strong belief sustained, even in the face of the moral and physical violence officers inflicted on others as part of their everyday routine.
The conditions of LA, the rhetoric of war, and the insularity of police department instilled expectations of dangerous residents in the officers of the LAPD. Presumed Guilty, the Tragedy of the Rodney King Affair provides insight into the worldview of these individuals. The memoir was penned by Sergeant Stacey Koon, the officer in charge at the beating of Rodney King. In a chapter titled ‘The Education of a Street Cop’, Koon describes how his interactions with the public shaped the way he thinks about policing.
In one interaction, Koon describes following a suspect’s car into a gas station. After noting there were no weapons in the suspect’s hands, Koon radioed for a back-up unit, which immediately came in with guns blazing, shouting commands to “Put your face to the ground, spread your legs, and freeze!” A search of the suspect’s car also turned up no weapons, and the suspect obediently submitted to arrest. Koon saw these actions as an ideal response to the situation, not as an aggressive use of force with minimal grounds, because officers “need to be prepared for any surprise.”
In another encounter, Koon recalls when a “whore” approached him an “intense, intent” look her eye. “Something in her walk, something about her look, something in her eyes that gave off danger signals…it was the look of mental case.” As this woman walked toward Koon with her hands in her coat pocket, Koon unholsters his gun and points it at her forehead, about to shoot. In the end, his partner “disarms” her of a cigarette holder before Koon can. Even though Koon ultimately faced no lethal danger, from this experience, he warned others: “Don’t be too quick to pull the trigger.”
In both cases, Koon automatically anticipates a conflict and proactively uses aggressive force to prevent a supposed escalation. Sociologist Fassin notes, “from the perspective of officers, it is pertinent to understand these practices not as deviant, but as inscribed in a moral economy of police work… according to this principle, it is acceptable to mistreat an individual one presumes to be guilty.” Because of ‘extreme conflict’ they faced, LAPD officers were taught to assume all individuals, especially minorities, were guilty of a crime or about to commit one. Violence against residents is not just acceptable; it became part of one’s duty.
Koon highlights this notion early on in the book, when describing the positive qualities of the LAPD.
Los Angeles has been able to provide more cost-effective law enforcement than any other major city in the United States. What does ‘pro-active’ mean? It means the LAPD tries to prevent crimes before starting to solve them. A black-and-white cruising an affluent neighborhood will stop somebody who looks out of place and suggest they move. The suggestion isn’t subtle, either. It’s ‘Leave. Right Now!’
Koon sees profiling and verbal aggression as actions worthy of praise in the Department, not as forms of misconduct. Further, he laments that the mainstream fails to understand these legitimate uses of violence, focusing instead on the “emotional price …paid in fear and questioning your own judgment” on the part of the police officers. Thus, within the Department, violence during police interactions became more about an officer’s inner emotional state than the pain and fear they inflicted on others.
LAPD officers were well known for these kinds of encounters – intense verbal aggression and threatening physical force toward individuals who had done little to deserve it. The LAPD was also notorious for another kind of violence: large scale operations that indiscriminately punished neighborhoods or led to mass arrests with little justification.
One of the most famous “sweeps” under Chief Gates was Operation Hammer, conceived and first executed in 1987. Police poured into South Central LA, arresting and holding (usually) Black men at any provocation. Often individuals would be held over the weekend, and then released with no charge. Often charges were so absurd that inventing reasons “took diligence and imagination,” as Domanick relates:
Using techniques they’d employed for decades in black LA, motorcycle and patrol officers multiplied their justifications for initiating stops, issuing tickets, and making arrests…if a driver or passenger had an outstanding parking, jaywalking, or traffic violation, it was off to jail.
During Operation Hammer, 25,000 people were arrested and citizen complaints of police brutality increased by 33%. Most egregious was the 1988 raid on two apartment buildings in South Central LA, in which eight LAPD Officers charged into the buildings, claiming to look for drugs. Instead, according to Domanick,
After handcuffing terrorized residents – including small children and their grandparents– they then spent the next several hours tearing all toilets from the floors; smashing in walls, stairwells, bedroom sets, and televisions with sledgehammers; slashing open furniture; and then sending it all crashing through windows into the front yard, and arresting anyone who happened to watch. As they were leaving, officers spray-painted a large board located down the street with graffiti…with the phrase “LAPD Rules”
Again, Fassin provides us a framework for understanding the actions of the LAPD. He characterizes such operation as a form of “collective punishment”, corresponding to “reprisal operations” that often occur during times of war. These raids have little to do catching the perpetrators of crime, but instead serve as retaliation and a reinforcement of the social order. Officers “render justice in the name of society,” holding the residents of South Central responsible for the totality of the conditions of LA, and find outlet for their personal resentment of a hostile public.
Indeed, if the LAPD’s goal were to catch drug dealers or offenders, they would have comically failed their mission. The raid on Dalton Avenue netted “less than six ounces of marijuana and less than an ounce of cocaine,” and no charges were filed. In fact, not a single gang member lived in those apartments. On the other hand, damage to property was so extensive that the Red Cross provided temporary shelter and the city paid $3.8 million to the occupants. Similarly, out of the 1,400 arrests in the “gang sweeps” of 19800, only 103 cases were filed.
Despite its extraordinary operations, the LAPD was quite ineffective at stopping the gang violence and drug smuggling that they deemed an apocalyptic threat. Instead, by criminalizing entire neighborhoods and incarcerating youths for petty crimes, the LAPD further destabilized South Central in a profound way. Gainful employment became harder to come by, divisions between ethnic groups were intensified, and gang leaders gained “tremendous authority and strength” because of the “collective animosity” against the police. Though the LAPD justified their violence because of the exceptional circumstances officers needed to overcome to defend the community, officers just made the situation much, much worse.
Systems of promotion and punishment within the LAPD perpetuated racism and violence against LA residents. The Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department, also known as the Christopher Commission, formed in the wake of the Rodney King beating and identified key structural elements within the Department that contributed to the deeply ingrained culture of the organization.
First, minorities in the police force made up little of LAPD leadership and often faced harassment at work. While women and racial minorities made up an increasing share of patrol officers, “three quarters or more of each rank of sergeant and above remained white as late as 1988.” Additionally, supervisors consistently failed to report misconduct when there was discriminatory treatment between officers of the same rank, conveying that such practices were accepted in the Department.
Secondly, the process for citizens to lodge complaints about officers in the LAPD was intentionally tedious and biased. The Christopher Commission Report reveals
Of the 2,152 citizen allegations of excessive force from 1986 through 1990, only 42 were sustained…People who wish to file complaints face significant hurdles. Some intake officers actively discourage filing by being uncooperative…in a number [of complaint files] there was no indication that investigators had attempted to identify or locate independent witnesses…Some commanding officers also evaluate witnesses’ credibility in inconsistent and biased ways.
Residents also had little ability to reform the LAPD through their elected government because of the structural limitations on appointed Police Commissioners. The Commissioner’s staff was headed by an appointed LAPD officer, whose future career was still determined by the Chief of Police. Commissioners also lacked the authority to directly displace or dismiss the Police Chief, as a Chief’s “civil service status” gave him “substantial property rights” and discretion in his position. Thus, officers had little check on their power and behavior.
Without these checks, the LAPD failed to punish those who committed police brutality. From 1980 to 1986, though officers shot 372 civilians, most of whom were unarmed, only one person was ever fired and no cop was indicted. Instead, these officers continued to be promoted and often handled the training of newcomers. The Christopher Commission Report concluded that most violence was committed by a “problem group of officers” that “repetitively use[d] excessive force against the public.”