One of the overarching themes running through media coverage of the 20th anniversary of the Rodney King riots has been the transformation of the Los Angeles Police Department, with said theme being summed up thus: The cops were bad guys then, but are good (or better) guys now.
The constant regurgitation of this theme reflects an ignorance of conditions in Los Angeles as they existed in the years leading up to the riots, and as one who has served with the LAPD for somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty years, I find it more than a bit tiresome.
Reason.com’s Tim Cavenaugh, in an otherwise commendable piece on conditions then and now in South Central Los Angeles (yes, Mr. Cavenaugh, people still call it “South Central,” despite what people at City Hall might wish), can’t resist a backhanded slap at the LAPD. “It would be more accurate to say,” he writes, “the trouble of 1992 came from a mixture of extremely volatile identity politics and a police force more focused on terrorizing the citizens than on solving crimes.”
To the extent the citizens in South Central L.A. were terrorized in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, it wasn’t by the police but rather by the gangsters who besieged the area’s decent people and made them fearful of leaving their homes, and sometimes of staying in them. South Central L.A. is patrolled by officers from four police stations: Southwest, 77th Street, Southeast, and Newton Divisions. I worked at all four of them through the 80's and into the 90's, and I recall that it was fairly routine to field five or six two-officer units on P.M. Watch at each division, with perhaps two additional units on Mid-P.M. Watch. In other words, on a typical night in the entirety of South Central L.A. there were but 50 to 70 police officers on duty during the busiest hours of the day. And this was at a time when all four of those divisions were handling a hundred murders or more – sometimes a lot more – each year. The crack cocaine epidemic and the gang activity it spawned was simply beyond any hope of control for the paltry allotment of officers the city saw fit to assign there.
But we did our best, working overtime most nights and spending most of our days at the Criminal Courts Building or the Compton courthouse, all in the effort to help the decent people we encountered every day. To ridicule those efforts, to ridicule those of us who worked in the most troubled of neighborhoods in the most troubled of times by saying we were “more focused on terrorizing the citizens than on solving crimes” is as insulting as it is erroneous.
But insults and errors are even harder to bear when they are accompanied by sanctimony, such as can be found in this piece, by Los Angeles Times editor Jim Newton. “The Los Angeles riots represented the culmination of many failures,” he writes, “the failure to provide hope for young people; the failure to supply education and jobs in the numbers that would stabilize communities; the failure to engage those communities in their own protection instead of relying on harsh and coercive law enforcement.”
Putting aside the pap about providing hope for young people and the rest of Newton’s utopian laundry list, one could argue that in a city where more than a thousand people were murdered and more than 45,000 assaulted, as was the case in both 1991 and 1992, the police were neither harsh nor coercive enough.
And note that Mr. Newton, in assigning blame for the riots on the LAPD, offers not a word of judgment on those who took to the streets and pulled innocent people from the cars before beating them nearly to death. No, that we have to understand.
But one expects as much from the Los Angeles Times, so there’s no disappointment in reading such a piece. The real disappointment comes in seeing that people who should know better have bought into the lie that the LAPD of twenty years ago was a festering nest of racists. In an article at the Neon Tommy website, LAPD Commander Andy Smith told an interviewer about the demands he faced as a young officer at Newton Division. “Pretty soon,” he said, “everybody in the community looks like a bad guy and heck, most people down here, even though they aren’t wealthy, are law-abiding, hardworking citizens that just want the same thing for their families as you and I want for our family: Live in peace, be able to have a job and work, take care of your family. We didn’t recognize that for a while.”
Commander Smith is a good man, and among his peers in the LAPD's upper ranks, one of the best, but if he truly believes that today, and if he acted that way as a young cop, I fear I've overestimated him. Every cop I worked with twenty years ago recognized very well that even in the most crime-ridden neighborhoods, most of the residents were decent and law-abiding. If he assumed otherwise, more’s the pity, but that’s on him.
While I was disappointed to hear Commander Smith demeaning his former colleagues, I can’t say I was surprised to see LAPD Chief Charlie Beck join the self-flagellating in Monday’s Los Angeles Times. Chief Beck tips his hand in the piece’s fourth paragraph, when he euphemizes the riots as “civil unrest,” and later when he opts for the benign term “uprising,” as though the riots were something more than criminal behavior on a massive scale. He closes the piece with a wish for his family members who serve as police officers:
My two children and my son-in-law are all LAPD officers. Like any parent, I want their future to be safe, secure and happy. But I also want to leave them with a legacy: I want them to belong to a Police Department that is a force for positive change, and one that brings communities together instead of tearing its city apart.
So it was the LAPD that tore the city apart, not the people who committed all those murders and assaults. This is politically correct revisionism at its worst. Sure, crime was bad because the cops were mean. How utterly false, how utterly nauseating.