Max Felker-Kantor: Police Power, Race, and Reform in Urban America: Lessons from L.A.
Today we welcome a guest post from Max Felker-Kantor, author of Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD, just published by UNC Press.
Felker-Kantor narrates the dynamic history of policing, anti-police abuse movements, race, and politics in Los Angeles from the 1965 Watts uprising to the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion. Using the explosions of two large-scale uprisings in Los Angeles as bookends, he highlights the racism at the heart of the city’s expansive police power through a range of previously unused and rare archival sources. His book is a gripping and timely account of the transformation in police power, the convergence of interests in support of law and order policies, and African American and Mexican American resistance to police violence after the Watts uprising.
Policing Los Angeles is available now in both print and ebook editions.
Police Power, Race, and Reform in Urban America: Lessons from L.A.
Repeated instances of police abuse and killings of people of color in cities across the country have led to calls for reform to make the police more accountable and transparent to the people they are supposed to serve. While activists have been central to making demands for changes to the nature of American policing, perhaps the biggest recent call for reform among politicians came from former president Barack Obama’s Task Force on Twenty-First Century Policing. The Task Force called for reforms to increase public trust in the police ranging from diversifying departments to establishing community-based policing to the use of officer body cameras. Recognizing the need for greater transparency and accountability is an important first step on the long road to police reform.
Some departments have taken seriously the need to reconcile the history of racially disparate policing with communities of color, to recognize the role of the police in maintaining racial hierarchies, and to acknowledge the need for fundamental changes in American policing. Yet, in many cities proposed reforms do little to question the fundamental authority of the police to enforce social order or to retain discretionary authority to decide what types of behavior or actions constitute a threat. In other words, most reforms take police power for granted and do little to question the underlying power of the police. Police departments also maintain deep-rooted resistance to reform or civilian oversight, leaving the police to police themselves.
Indeed, the broad support of the police largely remains common sense among policymakers of all political stripes. Such broad political support for the police is by no means new. As I show in Policing Los Angeles: Race Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD, well-intentioned reforms rarely resulted in fundamental change to the structure of the LAPD, to the expansive police power in urban politics, or to greater police accountability and transparency.
In the years after the 1965 Watts uprising, policymakers promoted police reforms ranging from diversifying the officer corps to increasing the number of community relations officers. Liberals, such as African American Mayor Tom Bradley who was elected in 1973 on a platform of police reform, hoped to use the power of city government to rein in the police department. Bradley’s liberal law and order framework, which promoted fair and equitable policing, aimed at limiting officer discretion and empowering the Board of Police Commissioners to assert greater authority to oversee the department. This approach to reform, however, did not lead to fundamental structural changes to the department or challenge the underlying support for the police. As a result, city officials released the police department to enhance its autonomy, power, and lack of accountability.
As interests converged among policymakers in support of the police, successful reforms did not change the balance of power between the police and the residents they were supposed to serve. Revised use of force guidelines, experimental community-oriented policing programs, and greater officer diversity changed the public image of the department but left the police with broad discretionary powers, most notably the chief of police who retained ultimate authority over officer discipline. The structure of police discipline and accountability in Los Angeles, in short, remained largely the same during an era dominated by the liberal Bradley administration. As a result, officers charged with misconduct or abuse rarely faced rigorous discipline or accountability.
By the early 1990s the nearly two-and-a-half decade-long effort to bring the LAPD under civilian control had largely failed. The beating of African American motorist Rodney King in 1991 and the subsequent 1992 rebellion after a jury acquitted the officers involved in King’s beating exposed the limits of past reforms. Once again, policymakers and investigators responded with calls for greater police accountability and far-reaching reforms. While city and LAPD officials did work to implement more extensive changes to the nature of police power in the years since 1992, the lessons of the history presented in Policing Los Angeles offers a cautionary note to anyone who thinks that more racially inclusive and politically progressive city governments will naturally produce more just law enforcement.
Max Felker-Kantor is visiting assistant professor of history at Ball State University. Follow him on Twitter, and visit his website at www.maxfelkerkantor.com.
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