SOLUTION: BSU Police History Liberal Law & Order & Dirty Work Q&A Discussion

JUHXXX10.1177/0096144217705462Journal of Urban HistoryFelker-Kantor
Liberal Law-and-Order: The Politics
of Police Reform in Los Angeles
Journal of Urban History
© The Author(s) 2017
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0096144217705462
Max Felker-Kantor1
After his election in 1973, Los Angeles’s first African American mayor, Tom Bradley, worked to
implement reforms that would increase civilian oversight and accountability of the Los Angeles
Police Department (LAPD). Ensuring procedural fairness that treated all residents equally,
Bradley and other liberals believed, would lead to reductions in police harassment, abuse,
and shootings. Placing their faith in the power of government to effectively manage the police
allowed liberals to pledge both strong support for tough law enforcement and propose police
reforms. This liberal law-and-order, however, did not result in similar police reforms, such as
civilian review, pursued in other Democratic-run cities. No event demonstrated this limitation
of Bradley’s liberal law-and-order approach to police reform as the Rodney King beating and the
1992 Los Angeles rebellion. Rather than demonstrating the failure of liberal reform, Los Angeles
shows how liberal law-and-order facilitated the expansion of police authority after the 1960s.
Los Angeles, police, crime, liberalism, carceral state
On July 13, 1973, less than two weeks after his inauguration as Los Angeles’s first African
American mayor, Tom Bradley looked out on the newest graduates of the Los Angeles Police
Department (LAPD) academy. Congratulating the officers, Bradley told them that “after receiving the finest police training available, you are looking forward . . . to a career of public service
in one of the most rewarding occupations a man can have.” While stressing his own experience
as an officer, Bradley also reminded them of their duty to carry out the work of law enforcement
in a fair, equitable, and responsible manner. “You now share the tradition of providing the best
possible Police service to the people of Los Angeles,” Bradley explained. “And it is your responsibility to provide police service with compassion, understanding, common sense, and good
judgment.” Through greater understanding, communication, and openness with the city’s residents, the police “can give equal and fair enforcement of the law everywhere in this city and that
Police Officers can be responsive to the people they serve.” Aligning himself with the officers,
Bradley pledged that together they “will do all of this because the people of our great city want,
expect, and demand that of us.”1
University, Indianapolis, IN, USA
Corresponding Author:
Max Felker-Kantor, Department of History and Social Science, Marian University, 307 Marian Hall, 3200 Cold Spring
Road, Indianapolis, IN 46222, USA.
Journal of Urban History 00(0)
Bradley’s vision reflected his belief that law enforcement could provide equitable police service by committing to reform and helping create a pluralist local government responsive to all the
city’s residents. Increasing civilian oversight and accountability of the police department while
maintaining a fair but vigorous law enforcement presence on the streets would enable Bradley to
wage a more effective war on crime. As a twenty-one-year veteran of the LAPD, Bradley entered
city politics prior to the Watts uprising as a critic of the police department’s treatment of African
American and Latino residents. During his time as a city councilman and mayor, Bradley promoted a liberal law-and-order politics that emphasized the need for government oversight of the
police department through the Board of Police Commissioners, a diverse officer corps, and fair
enforcement of the law for all residents.
Even as the police, punitive policy, and prisons have gained scholarly attention, historians
have only begun to examine the relationship between city politics, law enforcement, and reform.2
Many studies of the police have focused on the internal operation of police departments, the role
of discretion, and the culture and attitude of officers in isolation from urban politics and policy.3
Traditional narratives of post-1970s law-and-order politics follow a dichotomy of conservative
support for the police and liberal proponents of reform, especially under black mayoral power.
Examining Los Angeles during the Bradley era provides a way to rethink police power and the
politics of liberal reform efforts. Building on recent work focused on the role of liberals in shaping the punitive turn, this article bridges urban politics and policing to reveal the ways police
authority expanded under the liberal law-and-order reforms of the Bradley administration.4
Dominant accounts of the Bradley administration portray his position on police reform and
law-and-order as a function of the limitations of the city’s political structure and the overwhelming power of the LAPD. Political constraints rooted in the city charter and the autonomy
of the police department, these accounts suggest, limited the ability of Bradley and other liberals to push forward extensive reforms aimed at bringing more accountability to the police.5
Indeed, Bradley and liberal councilmembers faced significant obstacles in attempting to reform
the LAPD. Chief of Police William Parker had maneuvered the department into a position of
virtual unassailability after World War II. The structure of municipal government also limited
the mayor’s direct power over the police department, granted the Chief civil service protection,
and Section 202 of the city charter provided the Chief all power of discipline over officers.
White residents strongly supported the police department, which made criticism of the department politically risky, especially in citywide elections. These constraints narrowed Bradley’s,
and the city council’s, ability to openly confront the department on policies relating to police
shootings, abusive practices, and civilian oversight.6 Yet, as this article demonstrates, the lack
of substantial police reform in Los Angeles after the 1965 Watts uprising was not only a result
of political constraints to an otherwise rigorous reform agenda. It was also a function of the
nature of a liberal law-and-order politics that operated to support punitive policies and aggressive policing.7
As an African American mayor of a multiracial city, Bradley presented himself as a reformer
who would make city government more diverse, inclusive, and fair. Yet Bradley was beholden to
a wider constituency as mayor than he had been as a city councilman representing the predominantly middle-class African American and Jewish Tenth District, which comprised the neighborhoods of West Adams and Baldwin Hills to the west of downtown Los Angeles. Rather than
presenting himself as a mayor only responsive to the interests of black residents, he intended to
represent “all Los Angeles.” Every resident deserved to be safe on the city’s streets, which
required a strong police department. Ensuring procedural fairness that treated all residents
equally, Bradley and other liberals believed, would lead to reductions in police harassment,
abuse, and shootings. The politics of liberal law-and-order reform moderated demands for substantive change and enabled the broadening of police authority within the framework of fairness
and technocratic government oversight of the police department.8
Bradley’s liberal law-and-order politics focused on remaking the relationship between both
the police and the citizenry and the police and the mayor’s office. This approach represented a
departure from the city’s culture of reform politics that sought to limit the power of elected officials “over the resources of government.” The mayor’s authority was constrained by the city
charter which empowered a strong city council. Yet, Bradley developed a working relationship
with the council and, in contrast to prior mayors, believed the mayor could exert significant
power over local government.9 Bradley actively pursued reforms aimed at expanding the authority of his office over issues of law-and-order by appointing liberals to the Board of Police
Commissioners. Liberal law-and-order in Los Angeles, in other words, was not merely a response
to conservative calls for stronger law-and-order institutions and tough-on-crime policies but a
deliberate attempt by liberals to control law-and-order politics. This was a technocratic liberalism that allowed Bradley and liberal city councilmembers to pledge both strong support for tough
law enforcement and propose police reforms by placing their faith in the power of government to
effectively manage the police. This liberal law-and-order, however, did not result in similar
police reforms, such as civilian review, pursued in other Democratic-run cities.10
Successful reforms stressed how equitable law enforcement service could be achieved through
diversifying the officer corps, enhancing human relations training, and adopting a communityoriented policing philosophy based on increasing officer contact with residents. These approaches
to crime prevention, however, provided a semblance of civilian participation and inclusive law
enforcement without a limitation on police power or civilian control. Bradley supported programs to bring the police out of squad cars and onto the streets to interact and meet with residents
through team policing. The goal of the Team Experiment in Area Mobilization (TEAM), the
LAPD’s community-oriented policing program, was to enhance the relationship between the
police and the public while increasing accountability to residents. But these programs operated
to incorporate residents into crime control rather than altering the attitudes of the police. Reforms
based on community relations, in other words, focused on changing the behavior of residents not
the police. As a result, the politics of reform did little to alter the fundamental question of who
the police served and how they served them.11
The liberal law-and-order vision left LAPD’s power to wage an aggressive war on crime,
especially during the crack cocaine and gang crises of the 1980s, intact. Liberals, operating on
the postwar harm principle, which justified policing of those activities that harmed others, reconciled their effort to bring accountability to the police through government oversight with support
for punitive policies and aggressive policing of drug traffickers and gangs because so-called
“hoodlums” and “urban terrorists” threatened the safety of law-abiding residents. Throughout the
1980s, Bradley, who also hoped to become governor of California, promoted aggressive crimefighting strategies including antigang task forces, militarized gang sweeps, and punitive sentencing for drug dealers that overwhelmingly targeted the city’s communities of color. Liberal
law-and-order, in short, combined a commitment to police accountability while enabling the
expansion of the department’s crime-fighting role.
Los Angeles provides an important case study of liberal law-and-order reform. As the nation’s
second largest city and with a police department that was a model for departments across the country, Los Angeles reveals both the limits and possibilities of police reform after the 1960s. The
response to the Watts uprising, the Rodney King beating, the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion, and the
effort to secure additional funding for and authority of the police were nationally significant events
led by the LAPD but which shaped policing around the country. Focusing on Los Angeles also
demonstrates how a particular form of liberal politics combined with electoral politics and constraints of urban political structures to limit reform. No event demonstrated this limitation of
Bradley’s liberal law-and-order approach to police reform as the Rodney King beating and the
1992 Los Angeles rebellion. Rather than demonstrating the failure of liberal reform, Los Angeles
shows how liberal law-and-order facilitated the expansion of police authority after the 1960s.
Journal of Urban History 00(0)
The “Thin Blue Line”
No one was more instrumental in shaping the LAPD’s aggressive culture and autonomy from
political oversight by the city government than longtime Chief of Police William Parker. Parker,
who led the LAPD from 1950 until his death in 1966, envisioned a model of policing that rejected
crime prevention in favor of proactive policing guided by a masculine and aggressive strategy of
seeking out crime on the streets. Parker professionalized the LAPD to root out corruption,
increase efficiency, and improve the image of the department through a program based on scientific management, research, and military-style training and discipline. Although Parker could not
entirely restrain officer discretion on the street, he was largely successful in his efforts to create
a rigidly hierarchical structure intended to instill pride and discipline in officers. Parker ensured
his department was well-equipped and focused on maintaining authority on the streets.12 Under
Parker, the LAPD represented a “thin blue line” between law and order on one hand and crime
and lawlessness on the other.
Command and control policing put officers into patrol cars, which reduced contact with residents and stressed a quick response to crime through tactics that relied on knowing a criminal by
his or her appearance, looks, or demeanor. Parker’s philosophy was based on his view that officers were “neither equipped nor authorized” to deal with the causes of crime, claiming, “Our job
is to apply emergency treatment to society’s surface wounds. We deal with effect, not causes.”
The proactive approach led to aggressive police work in neighborhoods of color, higher arrest
rates, episodes of police abuse, and presumptions of black and Mexican American criminality. At
the same time, departmental statistics reported higher rates of crime in black and Mexican
American neighborhoods, which reinforced the department’s justification for higher levels of
policing in neighborhoods of color and made calls for reform difficult. Indeed, would be reformers were often limited by the department’s use of statistics and assertion that aggressive policing
was necessary to combat crime.13 For Parker, the social roots of urban problems were irrelevant
to the goal of crime control. “We are not interested in why a certain group tends towards crime,”
Parker declared, “we are interested in maintaining order.”14
Through professionalization, Parker also successfully insulated the department from political
control or oversight, and maintained sole decision-making power over policy and procedure.
Within the structure of city government, the LAPD had near-total autonomy. The City Charter
granted the Chief sole disciplinary powers over officers and made it nearly impossible for the
Chief to be fired due to civil service protection. Because the Chief wrote a self-evaluation on a
yearly basis, there was never evidence of “just cause” for removal.15 Although the Board of
Police Commissioners oversaw the department, it rarely took a stand against the department and
often acted as a rubber stamp following the Chief’s directives. Structural constraints of the City
Charter, with its entrenched civil service protections and rules that city departments, such as the
police, would be run by general managers overseen by part-time mayoral appointees who had to
be approved by the city council, made police reform a difficult task.16 As Chief Ed Davis, who
rose through the ranks under Parker, quipped during the 1970s, “I don’t want to be mayor of this
city. That position has no power. I already have more power than the mayor.”17
The LAPD was a powerful force in the city that had carved out its autonomy over three
decades of professionalization. Under nominally Democratic Mayor Sam Yorty, the LAPD
received unquestioned support from the local political power structure, and Yorty did little to take
an active role in asserting oversight through the Board of Police Commissioners. Any criticism
of the department opened political officials to attacks portraying them as antipolice, something
that could be fatal to politicians running for city-wide office. Growing concerns surrounding
crime and violent unrest also shaped the political conditions under which liberals attempted to
bring accountability to the department. Indeed, crime rates in Los Angeles had increased from
50.7 per 1,000 residents in 1963 to 59.5 per 1,000 residents in 1965. The crime rate continued to
Figure 1. Part I Crime Rate (per 1,000 residents) in Los Angeles, 1963-1992.
Source: LAPD Statistical Digests, 1963-1992.
increase throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, reaching 76.8 in 1970 and a three-decade high of
105.6 in 1982 (Figure 1). Within this context, the ability of officials to enact fundamental police
reform was limited as citizens openly supported get-tough policing.18
The Watts Uprising and Politics of Reform
As a police veteran, Tom Bradley was especially aware of the problems that plagued the department. During his time as an officer, Bradley developed a strong commitment to community engagement through work with youth gangs and in the Public Information Division (Figure 2).19 After
leaving the department, Bradley entered politics in 1963 with his election to the City Council’s
Tenth District. On the council, he routinely called for greater accountability, oversight in complaint
procedures, and improved community relations. Prior to the Watts uprising, Bradley raised concerns over the patterns of harassment and officer-involved shootings in neighborhoods of color.20
When two plainclothes police officers in an unmarked car killed John Grudt, an African
American resident, on February 24, 1965, the department’s accountability and the ability of the
police commission to impartially investigate the use of force came under scrutiny. Initially, the
commission suspended the use of unmarked cars in high-crime areas. Councilman Bradley, however, called on the commission to investigate the proper use of firearms and requested the city
council’s Fire and Police Committee to “determine the policy of the department as to when its
officers should shoot.”21 The result of the investigation found that the “action taken by the Police
Officers involved was proper.” Dissatisfied with the judgment, Bradley pushed for further review
and openly criticized the police commission for avoiding its duty to oversee the department’s use
of force.22 He provided evidence of at least 178 episodes of officer-involved shootings, seventy
of those fatal, in the fourteen months prior to the Grudt killing and asked the commission to “look
into these cases to avoid compounding the tragic death of John Grudt.” Such pressure, however,
produced a defensive response from the commission, and Mayor Sam Yorty criticized Bradley
for attempting to make a “grandstand play.”23
If Bradley’s critiques brought strong recriminations from mayor Yorty and law enforcement
officials, they also made him the most prominent critic of the department on the City Council.
Journal of Urban History 00(0)
Figure 2. Tom Bradley in his police uniform, circa 1950s.
Source: Mayor Tom Bradley Administration papers (Collection 293). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E.
Young Research Library, UCLA.
Responding to Bradley, the police commission commented that his requests “stand out in a place
by themselves as being voluminous and persistent. This Commission and its staff find it is now
engaged …
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