Illustration by Gracia Lam
What is it about L.A. and its police force? We know it’s not the goon squad of decades past, but the sight of the black uniforms and dark sunglasses sets off quivers. So when a nurse, someone like you and me, gets pulled over for using her cell phone and is then slammed to the ground for ignoring orders to return to her car, our fears kick into high gear. Not again, I thought, as I forced myself to look at the images of a battered Michelle Jordan that were played over and over. Two other incidents—one involving a hapless skateboarder—occurred around the same time, more examples of what appeared to be out-of-control people in uniform. ¶ Surely this couldn’t be happening. The police had been working overtime to repair themselves in real, not just cosmetic, ways. The change in the cops and how they operated in this multicultural sprawl was one of the
heartening stories of the past ten years. So the weird thing was how fast my suspicions—and those of my friends—were triggered. We agreed that no matter how much we had read about the transformation of law enforcement, we remained queasy, uncertain that the metamorphosis was genuine and that the LAPD had cleaned up its act. It’s as if we all have a Rodney King trip wire. We see the images of those in uniform committing what are clearly abusive acts, and we are jolted back to the old paradigm: the police as an occupying army in a vast, complicated city. The baton cracks and whoosh!—we suffer the flashback in unison, a collective case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
These feelings run deep for many Angelenos. They go back at least to the Watts riots in 1965, when police brutality was the spark. Even as a white girl growing up on the Westside, I was afraid of the police. They were the swaggering guys with the reflective sunglasses patrolling the streets like an Old West posse, especially the ones who roared around on motorcycles, machismo incarnate. They were scary, and they seemed to like it that way. A high-ranking officer I know, who served the city from 1969 to 2007, says that on the first day of his training the young recruits were told that they were about to enter a war zone, where a lot of people wanted to kill them. They lived in a state of arrogant paranoia. The message, he says, was to watch your back every second. You certainly didn’t want a stranger—even a harmless-looking one—coming up to you.
I remember the first time I was in New York City and saw these slouchy, friendly-looking street corner cops. I was astonished to see people talking to them and laughing with them, even touching them as they shared a joke. I had never witnessed such scenes. They were a revelation. Of course that city had—and has—a far larger force (34,000 compared with our 13,000), much of it on foot. The guys I watched on that visit and on subsequent trips were approachable, with their comfortable paunches—not the intimidating, ramrod-straight brigades of my hometown. The NYPD has had its own ugly incidents of police corruption and abuse along the way, but the atmosphere on the ground is so different. Those officers seem to be of their city, not sitting on top of it—or peering at it through the windows of a patrol car, keeping their distance.
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In 1991, the lid finally blew. You could say that Rodney King, by taking those horrible blows, did us all a service, and no one, including the powers that be, could look away anymore. A fancy commission was formed and changes were promised, but somehow improvements seemed to stall. Many of us still had a knot in our stomachs when dealing with the police. Then came the scandal in the Rampart Division a few years later—at least 70 officers found guilty of unprovoked beatings and shootings, perjury, and planting evidence. In the wake of that tumult the LAPD was forced to enter into a federal consent decree with the Justice Department—in effect having Big Brother watch its every move—and that humiliation, according to my LAPD friend, made the organization begin to change its ways.
Like a lot of people, I watched skeptically from a distance. Was it really possible to alter a long-entrenched culture? Bit by bit I began to believe, to let down my guard, to not be spooked every time a patrol car passed, to not have sweaty palms when I got pulled over for a questionable traffic move. The temperature of the town went down; people started to exhale. You could hear it and feel it. Then Bill Bratton came riding in from a triumphant tenure as head of the NYPD, and he worked L.A. and the media like a celebrity pro, helping to banish lingering doubts, even on the toughest streets. We had a new police force; that’s what he told us. Officers were to be respectful, part of the community. They were to holster their swagger.
By that point many of us had logged our own personal experiences—reassuring ones at that. One night my mother was mugged in the parking lot of her favorite market. She had been shopping, no doubt whistling—as was her wont—while carrying her groceries to the car. A couple of young men knocked her down and grabbed her purse. She was in her seventies then. When I got to her, she was sitting in a chair, her beautiful face bruised from the fall, with two officers beside her. They were gentle without being patronizing. They took her information and insisted on following us home. They stayed for some time to calm my mom down and told her to change the locks and all her credit cards and that they would keep a sharp eye on her house. We were both grateful—and, I have to admit, stunned by their kindness. One of the officers was female. I don’t know if that made a difference, but in general the diversity of the force is among the ameliorating shifts. There are now 3,778 women in the force, while Latinos make up 41 percent, up from 33 percent in 1999. In short, we are not being policed by a bunch of Marlboro Men anymore. Let’s not forget: Crime is way down, too.
Yes, there is ongoing racial profiling, people being stopped because of the color of their skin. On my side of town there was a notorious motorcycle cop, a white 15-year veteran who routinely pulled over Latinos in their trucks—gardeners and day workers. I often saw him writing tickets. Earlier this year he was finally disciplined. In South L.A. it can be just the reverse, a young Latino friend told me. He says that the older white cops are more relaxed and confident, whereas the young black and Latino officers tend to be more throwback macho, as if they have something to prove. There is also the theory that the younger cadets have been raised in a high-tech era of computer communications and thus have lost the interpersonal skills of talking people down; tensions escalate quickly and violence can result.
The new chief, Charlie Beck, did everything right when the recent disturbing videos surfaced. He wasn’t defensive, and he didn’t make excuses. He called for investigations and community meetings. He is old-school LAPD—a 35-year vet—and new school as well. People like him and trust him. There is something comforting in his demeanor when you see him speak and in the informality of his very name: Charlie. He seems accessible like those cops I saw—and still see—in Manhattan. Admittedly this is not an easy city to handle. I don’t know anyone who is reflexively antipolice anymore. Most of us have a keen sense of the formidable job we’re asking them to do. But when those violent images appear, our nerve endings go on alert. Given the city’s history, that will no doubt be true for a very long time.