From Rodney King to a transformed L.A.

April 26, 2017

On March 3, 1991, a video camera recorded four Los Angeles police officers beating an African-American man, Rodney King. Civil disorder struck the city on April 29, 1992, after a jury in Simi Valley chose not to convict any of the officers involved.

On June 2, only a few weeks after the violence subsided, the city’s voters approved Proposition F, an unprecedented change in the governance and oversight of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) that would have seemed inconceivable only a year before.

In that one year, a sea change occurred in the city’s democratic institutions. And the Los Angeles Jewish community played an important role in those historic events.

For more than four decades, the LAPD had prevented civilian authority from holding it accountable for police misconduct in minority communities. After the appointment of Chief William Parker in 1950, the LAPD intimidated and overshadowed elected officials, who feared the chief’s secret intelligence files and were reluctant to challenge the department’s carefully burnished public image. The police chief was more visible and more powerful than the mayor.

It was not until Tom Bradley, an African-American retired LAPD officer, joined the city council in 1963 that any credible counter-force developed. Bradley constructed a historic coalition of African-Americans, Latinos and liberal Jews to fight for police reform. During his 10 years on the council, and then in his record 20 years as mayor, Bradley and his allies fought to bring the department under civilian control. The core of the movement was in the African-American community, where decades of police abuse had built a political resistance of great duration. But coalition partners helped mightily.

With the help of councilmember Zev Yaroslavsky, whose Fifth District contained the largest share of Jews in Los Angeles, important changes were made, including the elimination of intelligence gathering on prominent public officials and well-known Angelenos. Yaroslavsky earned the enmity of Chief Daryl Gates, who disparaged “Zev and his Marxist friends.”

Despite some important victories, Bradley could not shake the city charter, which featured, among other provisions, extending the chief civil service protection. Nor could Bradley easily counter the political power of the police. Los Angeles was a whiter, less liberal city than it is today, and the police enjoyed strong support outside the African-American and white liberal communities.

As Bradley’s mayoralty drifted near the end of its fifth term, he struggled with declining popularity and a weakening of his Black-Jewish coalition. It seemed that the department would survive its greatest challenge and that its special role above democracy’s reach would continue. The Bradley regime seemed on its last legs.

The video of the beating of Rodney King, who reportedly was speeding and then led police on a high-speed chase (at the time, he was on parole for a robbery conviction), changed everything. Bradley called on Gates, who had consistently fought Bradley’s push for oversight since he took over as chief in 1978, to resign. Gates refused. Bradley’s appointed police commission placed Gates on leave. The city council overturned the commission’s decision and restored Gates to office.

Bradley appointed the Christopher Commission (named for its chairman, Warren Christopher), which issued a dramatic report blasting the department’s behavior, called for fundamental reform and demanded that Gates resign. In a dramatic change, the council overcame its own sorry history of caving in and voted to put most of the commission’s recommendations on the June ballot as Prop F. If the voters approved, the chief’s civil service protection would be gone, and the chief would be limited to two five-year terms. Gates’ popularity plummeted and support for reform grew. His disapproval was particularly high among African-Americans and Jews. The frayed liberal coalition was coming together for one more big battle.

With the stunning “not guilty” verdicts on April 29, civil disorder erupted. Just weeks before the climactic June vote that would decide the fate of Los Angeles democracy, rage and violence spread.  Gates was derelict in his duties, abandoning police headquarters to attend a Brentwood cocktail fundraiser against Prop F., an action that shocked Police Commission President Stanley Sheinbaum, who confronted Gates in the parking lot.

Even in a polarized and frightened city, though, voters embraced police reform. The searing visual impact of the King tape, the obvious insubordination and reckless leadership of Gates, and the prestige of the Christopher Commission made the case. Gates had few handholds to grasp. After the civil disorder, his disapproval rating reached a staggering 81 percent. 

On June 2, Prop F. passed with 62 percent of the vote, drawing large majorities from African-Americans, white liberals, especially Jews, and Latinos. It was the most startling and important achievement in Los Angeles democracy in a half-century. The Eighth District, in the heart of the Black community, and the Jewish Fifth District cast overwhelming vote margins for Prop F, accounting for the largest share of the winning totals.

The LAPD we know today, more diverse and with a much more positive relationship in the community than in years past, and with police chiefs who no longer stand astride the local political system like political bosses, grew from that dramatic and shocking year, and from the ashes of the civil disorder. It was a far closer call than we might imagine. Reform has not brought miracles, but it has opened the door both to democratic accountability for the police and a far more popular department. 

Without the shocking events that pulled Los Angeles into the depths of polarization, a thoroughly unpopular chief and an interracial coalition that rose from the floor one more time, true reform might never have come.

This issue is, of course, very much alive today, especially after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he will review all consent decrees between the Department of Justice and local governments and their police departments. 

Now, more than ever, local governments from California to Ferguson, Mo., to Miami and beyond will have to depend on their own democratic institutions to bring about change. Fortunately, there are numerous police departments and chiefs who do not want to return to the days before police reform and civilian accountability. The struggle that Los Angeles faced and surmounted shows that only persistence over time and the building of a strong coalitions will meet the task.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, executive director of Cal State Los Angeles’ Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, is the author of  “Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles” (Princeton University Press, 1993).

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