The LAPD: Not Your Model Police Department – But Definitely Theirs
Los Angeles has long served as a proving ground where the counterinsurgency tactics later adopted by police throughout the United States were first domestically deployed. Ever since the nation’s very first no-knock SWAT raid on the Black Panther Party headquarters at 41st & Central and the CIA-facilitated, “crack cocaine explosion” that was first unleashed on South Central to more recent, repressive innovations like so-called “Community Policing” and today’s “Predpol,” the City of Angels has repeatedly been lauded as a “model” for “modern” policing. But what is the Los Angeles model, really? And why is it being exalted again now?
In August, when people in Ferguson, Missouri bravely erupted in open revolt against the police after Darren Wilson murdered Mike Brown – their spirited resistance inspired and reenergized a movement nationwide. The collective rejection of establishment collaborators like Jessie Jackson, Al Sharpton and even newcomers like Antonio French also signaled a renewed challenge to the “negotiated management” of black rage. And power trembled.
Seemingly overlooked, however, Ferguson also exposed Police Chief Tom Jackson’s not-quite-ready-for-primetime media inexperience. When Jackson first got before cameras, he stuttered and stumbled. Pressured to face his critics (after several masterful, hug-filled photo ops by “star” Captain Ron Johnson), Jackson and his henchmen mucked their own PR stunt up and turned a peaceful march into a melee. Even after a canned, too-little-too-late apology to the Brown family, Jackson proved unable to recuperate his own public perception or that of his department.
That’s where the “LA model” comes in. As the media tells it, the LAPD have built an exemplary “bank of trust” with the community. But what community is that? Not us. The “private sector,” like real estate billionaires. The media. Self-selected “Civil Rights leaders” like Connie Rice, Earl Hutchinson and Najee Ali – that’s who. And that’s the core of “the LAPD model;” what I call “copaganda.” Highly managed dissent, maintained through the threat and actualization of the same old violence, but now reimagined for the public through relentless propaganda and the very deliberate tokenization of a very select few police collaborators. In short: the careful management of public perception.
In modern policing, preserving a positive public perception, what Feruson’s police couldn’t maintain, is paramount because – no matter what power says to the contrary – professional policing in the US is foundationally racist. As is true with capitalism itself, the bedrock our police were built upon is the ultraviolent management, hyperviolent exploitation and forced warehousing of black bodies and the protection of (white) private property. This has been the case since chattel slavery, where black bodies were the property itself, through the “ethnoracial exclusion” of the 20th Century ghetto system – and it continues today with what Glen Ford calls “Mass Black Incarceration” and Michelle Alexander calls “The New Jim Crow.”
You can’t reform that. And you certainly can’t alter the way it is enforced by police without even acknowledging it. Not with some technological pseudo-panacea like bodycameras. Not with empty slogans like “community policing.” And definitely not with mere “diversity.”
The truth that Los Angeles and other diverse police forces reveal is that non-white cops enforce the same order, the same racist laws, that white cops do. Diversity in policing, then, is clearly no real inhibitor to police violence; the system is violence. As Annalee Newitz once observed, “the police uniform, the badge, are like white skin, and the person who wears that skin is allowed to enforce laws which he doesn’t himself intend to follow.” After the Marikana Massacre in South Africa in 2012, Margaret Kimberley further explained, “White supremacy doesn’t necessarily need white people in order to function. It only needs people who understand clearly where whites stand vis a vis other groups. The black police who ordered the shootings and who carried them out were as much white supremacists as the white police who killed in the days of minority rule.”
White supremacy is the cudgel of capitalism and is the driving force of modern policing; the sine qua non, not some unintended and easily-tweakable consequence. What Loïc Wacquant called the “anti-black animus” that motivates modern policing is, indeed, fundamentally inseparable from it. Therefore, maintaining the current, racist order – and the inextricable role our police play in maintaining it – necessitates a constant obfuscation of that very fact. Or, in other words, it requires successful public relations. And that’s exactly where the LAPD excel.
The Carrot and the Stick: A Case Study in the LAPD “Model”
In a recent interview with CNN, President Bill Clinton shared his thoughts on the current incarnation of a movement he himself deftly undermined during his own Presidency by both bolstering police nationwide and accelerating the expansion of the carceral complex while championing obfuscating slogans like “community policing.” As reported by Andrew Romano, who investigated the topic of the Los Angeles model at some length – yet who still dutifully perpetuated its core tenets of faith – Clinton remarked:
“We used to have a terrible problem in Los Angeles,” he said. “And almost no one in the world has noticed that while the Ferguson controversy was going on, a civilian in Los Angeles was killed in a confrontation with the police. But because of the dramatic improvements in community relations and the sense of the people in the community that their lives had dignity, the process unfolded there as it should, and there were no mass demonstrations.”
“That’s what we’ve got to do everywhere in America,” Clinton concluded.
Overlooking the fact that, contrary to Clinton’s claims, there were “mass demonstrations” in LA in the immediate wake of Ezell Ford’s murder – what does Clinton mean when he says, “the process unfolded there as it should”? It’s true – the streets of Los Angeles are relatively quiet today. But why is that? To understand the LAPD model – and the central role public relations play in it – a closer examination of their ongoing response to the murder of Ezell Ford may be helpful.
First, as we have shown, there were immediate protests – including by Ford’s own mother, Tritobia, who was summarily brutalized herself by the LAPD. When those protests failed to get answers, from the names of the officers involved to the as-yet-still unreleased autopsy report, some protesters took a different tract. Some made a music video in an effort to pierce the media veil that had enshrouded the Ford murder.
The LAPD’s response was swift and decisive. Through police union President Tyler Izen and his powerful media partners, the LAPD publicly criminalized Ceebo The Rapper. Presaging Pointergate, Izen falsely identified Ceebo as a known gang member. As Bethania Palma Markus revealed in her Truthout article in September, besides exposing Ceebo to potential gang retaliations, the tactic seemed meant “to distract people from the fact that the LAPD had… refused to release information on Ford…”
While the outrage over treatment of Ceebo simmered, journalist Jasmyne Cannick leaked the names of the two “Shootin’ Newton” Division officers involved in Ford’s murder. It’s important to note the distinction; the officers’ names weren’t “released” by the LAPD – they were leaked to a journalist and the LAPD then confirmed the leaked names. The “process” didn’t unfold “as it should.” It was rended open by unrelenting, community pressure.
However, undeterred by the dangerous LAPD smear campaign, Ceebo and other community members continued their indefatigable protests. They marched. They confronted the police at community meetings. They even continued making music videos to articulate their concerns and amplify their search for justice, which had struggled to generate media interest against the spectacle in Ferguson. And then, tiring of their continued efforts, the LAPD showed its real fangs.
The carrots, as they always had, would continue to go to self-selected leaders like Earl Hutchinson, who played by the LAPD’s stage-managed script. Book deals and whirlwind media tours went to Connie Rice. But grassroots organizers like Ceebo would instead get the stick.
It’s important to note that Los Angeles has a very long history of law enforcement orchestrated frame-ups and even outright political executions, including – perhaps most significantly – of grassroots black (and also brown) organizers. From the killings of Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and John Huggins to the notorious frame-up of Geronimo ji Jaga, the carrot continues to go to the liberals who play ball with white power while the stick comes down hard on community organizers who don’t. As recently as 2012, community organizers Alex Sanchez and Carlos Montes faced stifling, clearly political persecution in LA. Ceebo, now serving 17 years in prison for allegedly stealing an X-Box in a case that was highly dubious but generated little media attention, has seemingly joined a long line of radical organizers who bore the brunt of the LAPD’s stick. Clearly, without him, the movement here has suffered greatly.
If, as President Clinton asserted, decapitation strikes like the political persecution of Ceebo and ongoing, mafioso-style LAPD harassment of Ezell Ford’s family are “what we’ve got to do everywhere in America,” then things are definitely going to get a lot uglier around the country before they get any better. If the “LAPD as model” narrative continues without a proper challenge, then it certainly appears our likely fate; incoming Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, for one, has already said, “That’s what I want for Oakland.” And Bill Bratton, who Romano said “deserves much of the credit” for LA’s “change,” still has his own sights set on teaching “the world’s police.”
Of course, the struggle for justice for Ezell Ford continues, even if it has been dampened to a murmur by the LAPD’s masterful deployment of both carrots and sticks, not to mention their domineering control of the local (and even national) media. The question remains: when the autopsy report is finally released, will Los Angeles’ cries be heard by the world through the overwhelming din of a highly-effective, police copaganda apparatus? Will the liberals keep taking their carrots while real community activists get picked off? Did you know 323 people were illegally arrested in LA after the non-indictment of Darren Wilson? Did you know a young black activist, arrested in Hollywood before Christmas, is now facing a felony “lynching” charge? How can we get these stories heard? How can we show that the LAPD aren’t the “model” their propagandists are claiming they are?
As Ferguson seemingly showed, do we need to start a riot?