Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
The department's reforms in the decades following the 1992 Los Angeles riots could provide direction for other police forces.
No small part of the outrageous injustice around the death of Freddie Gray is its familiarity. Mr. Gray's severe spinal injury in the custody of the Baltimore Police Department and his ensuing death is the latest in a very public series of black-male casualties at the hands of police officers—officers who have often walked away without indictment. Protests and riots over the police killings of Gray, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Walter Scott have all gripped the nation over this past year.
This Wednesday was the anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which broke out after four white police officers were acquitted of charges of assault and excessive force after their brutal beating of Rodney King, a black man, was captured on video. Six days of unrest included both peaceful demonstrations and violence: 53 people died, more than 2,000 people were injured, and widespread arson and looting set property damages at over $1 billion.
"Thank God that was not the fate of Baltimore on Monday," writes Jonathan Capeheart at the Washington Post. "But there is a straight line that connects Los Angeles 1992 to Baltimore 2015"—the long fuse of injustice and oppression of a city's black community, lit by a violent example from the police that "their lives don't matter."
But is worth pointing out that some things have changed, at least in Los Angeles. The riots forced the city to take a long, hard look at the infamously brutal LAPD (some argue this police force invented modern police militarization), and some reforms did come.
The Christopher Commission, ordered by then-mayor Tom Bradley, was a full examination of the department's structure and operations following the riots. Its findings put the spotlight on officers' widespread use of excessive force, and the failure of upper management to appropriately intervene. Though most of its recommendations went unheeded, the commission's findings did result in the end of the LAPD's lifetime-term policy for chiefs. That allowed the department to force its notoriously aggressive, divisive leader, Daryl Gates, to resign, and to begin hiring chiefs on five-year terms instead.
Yet it would take nearly another decade for true change to come. In 2000, the discovery of widespread violent corruption in the LAPD's anti-gang unit forced the city to enter a consent decree with the U.S. of Department of Justice. The DOJ helped oversee the LAPD for five years. That was truly rock bottom for the force. "It cleared the deck," civil rights lawyer Connie Rice told NPR. "It cleared the way to bring in a transformative chief who would use the consent decree to finally, finally force [the] LAPD to police constitutionally."
That chief was William J. Bratton, sworn in in 2002. Bratton surely has his critics, and his "broken windows" philosophy of policing has been particularly controversial during his current tenure as commissioner of the New York City Police Department. But in Los Angeles, he has been largely remembered as the department's reformer, instituting community policing and executing the city's consent decree.
"It took eight years of hard work by Bratton, prodding from reform organizations such as the Advancement Project and the hiring of a diverse new police force to erase Gate's legacy and give the LAPD back to the people of Los Angeles," wrote Joe Domanick, author of several books on California policing history, in the Los Angeles Times.
A 2009 Harvard University study found public opinions of the police to be much more positive since the reforms of the last consent decree were implemented, with 83% of residents saying the LAPD was doing a good or excellent job.
And the way the department responds to incidents of brutality has changed dramatically. Current Chief Charlie Beck condemned the recent brutal beating and Tasing of Clinton Alford Jr. by officer Richard Garcia as "not only beyond departmental policy but ... in fact criminal." That is a far cry from the way from how Gates stood up for the officers involved in Rodney King's assault. Beck is also behind the initiative for L.A. to become the first major city to equip all of its officers with body cameras, which was approved earlier this week.
Los Angeles is not absolved in the legacy of Rodney King. Incidents of police brutality occur in that city regularly, as they do all over the country. In fact, police killings there may be on the rise. Last month, a homeless man on Skid Row died the hands of a police officer. Black and Latino Angelenos distrust the LAPD in higher numbers than whites do: In that 2009 study, 23 percent of black respondents said police treat all racial and ethnic groups fairly "almost never," compared with 14 percent of Latinos and 10 percent of whites.
Body cameras, hiring for diversity, community policing strategies: None of these things are enough to stem the tide of horrific, racially charged violence and killings by police officers.
But at the very, very least, the LAPD has been held accountable, and a police culture that once seemed impenetrably militaristic is changing. Besides Garcia, two LAPD officers are currently being prosecuted for use of excessive force, according to The Guardian. In that article, Domanick notes that in the two to three decades before the Rodney King case, just one LAPD officer had ever been similarly tried.
And that—along with today's announcement that six Baltimore police officers will be charged in the death of Freddie Gray—might provide some guidance to other cities, and very small kernel of hope for a nation demanding reform.