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By Max Felker-Kantor
Felker-Kantor, Max. Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018.
“A strong, visible police force is one of our best crime-fighting tools,” said Los Angeles’s liberal African American mayor, Tom Bradley, in 1990. “I want to give them the personnel to escalate our attack.” In remarks delivered alongside his proposed budget for the year, Bradley committed the city to providing the department with the resources to effectively combat crime and violence.
Support for the police among policymakers, both liberal and conservative, led to a profound expansion of police power and authority in Los Angeles and American cities more broadly after the 1960s. Yet, in the years after the 1965 Watts uprising, liberals in Los Angeles, none more so than Bradley who was elected in 1973 on a platform of police reform, also hoped to rein in the police department.
Policing Los Angeles is the first history to explore Bradley’s effort to bring greater political oversight to the LAPD while at the same time promoting fair and equitable policing, a framework I call liberal law and order. 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 enabled the police department to enhance its autonomy, power, and lack of accountability.
As Policing Los Angeles shows, 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. The police, in short, play a crucial role in ensuring they remained a powerful partisan entity in Los Angeles, routinely carving out new areas of discretionary authority in response to demands for reform.
But the story told in Policing Los Angeles is more than one of liberal politics and police power. African American and Latino/a residents and activists recognized the threat of an unfettered police power that operated as an occupying force in the city’s communities of color, and they routinely mobilized against it. In the decades after Watts, they resisted the LAPD’s effort to discipline them by protesting police brutality and demanding greater police accountability.
While many residents of color supported liberal reforms based on ensuring procedurally fair policing, anti–police abuse activists pushed further in their demand that the power of the LAPD be not only reined in but in some cases dismantled entirely. In doing so, activists exposed the racism at the heart of police power, the limits of liberal reforms, and proposed alternatives to get-tough policing.
In following the stories of activists through extensive archival materials, Policing Los Angeles reveals how anti–police abuse movements extended well into the 1970s and beyond. Although activists did not achieve the fundamental changes to the LAPD that many desired, they created the conditions for reform following the 1992 Los Angeles uprising and the subsequent Rampart Scandal, which led to a federal consent decree and oversight of the department.
Dr. Max Felker-Kantor is an American historian who specializes in twentieth century American and African American history with a focus on race, politics, and social movements. He is particularly interested in the policies and institutions of urban law enforcement and criminal justice systems since World War II. His articles have been published in the Journal of Urban History, Journal of Civil and Human Rights, and Boom California. He currently teaches American and African American history at Ball State University. Dr. Feker-Kantor’s book, Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD will be published in the Justice, Power, and Politics series at the University of North Carolina Press in this fall.