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A Tale of Two Commissions: Watts, Rodney King and the Politics of Policing

After nearly thirty years of struggle and continued efforts to be more inclusive and diverse, the country is once again in the throes of unrest, clamoring for real change. As the nation strives for answers and ways forward in the wake of George Floyd’s death, it is helpful to look back. How did we get here? How can we help make lasting changes? Read on to learn more.

 

When Los Angeles police pulled over Marquette and Ronald Frye on August 11, 1965, a series of events unfolded that delivered one of the nation’s most tragic spectacles in its metropolitan history. Watts was neither the first major urban uprising of the 1960s nor the last. Yet except for the Kennedy Assassination, no other event during the 1960s garnered as much attention. The ultimate devastation claimed both human life and property as it resulted in 34 people dead, nearly 3,500 arrested and $40 million in property damage. 

Watch Oscar-winning filmmaker John Ridley discuss police brutality, the Rodney King riots and what they meant for the different minority groups living in Los Angeles. 

Over a quarter of a century later, the city witnessed an equally cataclysmic expression of economic, political and social grievance when Los Angeles once again went up in flames following the Rodney King verdict. Whatever one chooses to label the 1992 incident — The L.A. Rebellion, L.A. Uprisings, Rodney King Riots or Los Angeles Justice Riots — it drew residents, elected officials and the LAPD back to the hot summer of 1965. 

How could so little progress have been made over three decades? What had changed, and why were the recommendations proposed by 1992's Webster Commission less expansive and even more conservative than the 1965 McCone Report on Watts?

Over fifty years later, several explanations for Watts have been put forth, but most acknowledge it as a political response by the community. Raised expectations derived from President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society Model Cities programs collided with an active local civil rights movement that responded to various provocations such as the Los Angeles School Board's slow response to desegregation, the repeal of the Rumford Housing Act by the Prop 14 referendum and Mayor Yorty's dismissiveness regarding LAPD police brutality. “It was a war to break the authority of police,” since the LAPD wanted to keep minorities in subservient positions, Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) official Wendell Collins attested.

Black smoke darkens the sky over Southeast Los Angeles, during the fourth day of the Watts Uprising | Getty Images
Black smoke darkens the sky over Southeast Los Angeles, during the fourth day of the Watts Uprising | Getty Images

Community leaders and residents stated the causes of the Watts Uprising in much the same way. “Sure everybody down here's got a record," a 26-year-old dockworker pointed out at the time. “A Negro can’t stay here a year without a record. They want Negroes to have records. Then we can’t get those civil service jobs.” An editorial in the Mexican American newsletter Carta Editorial made similar assertions arguing the LAPD only knew of two means to police the community, “insults and violence.” The editorial continued to suggest that what had happened in Watts was not a riot but rather “revolt against all laws, authority, and accepted social norms.”

Municipal officials and others hoped to better understand the motivations behind the uprising and enlisted John McCone to lead the investigation. Longtime Republican, Eisenhower National Security Council member and CIA director under Kennedy, McCone produced the report through a “set of ideological blinders,” argues historian Max Felker-Cantor, thereby ensuring that the final product would deemphasize the problems of police brutality.

Rapid Response and Community Policing: Are They Really in Conflict? cover. | Los Angeles Webster Commission records, 1931-1992, USC Digital Libraries
Rapid Response and Community Policing: Are They Really in Conflict? cover. | Los Angeles Webster Commission records, 1931-1992, USC Digital Libraries

Current GOP leadership might bemoan California as a liberal bastion consisting of socialist elites, undocumented migrants and liberal sanctuary cities, but during the 1950s and into the 1960s, Southern California in particular was ground zero for the New Right and helped catapult Ronald Reagan into the governorship a year later. Unsurprisingly, the L.A. Chamber of Commerce threw its full-throated support behind Los Angeles police chief William Parker. The chief received nearly 18,000 letters from the public with almost 99% approval. After his appearance on "Meet the Press" that summer, viewers, notably several from California, reiterated this assent blaming "communist infiltration" and "shiftless" African Americans for the unrest. 

The McCone Report pointed not to police brutality as a root cause of the unrest, but instead to a "small rump of disaffected blacks" up to 10,000, who its authors argued, could be blamed for the violence. Considering that Chief William Parker banned LAPD officers from testifying, such conclusions prove unsurprising. Still, despite the admittedly very conservative nature of the report, it managed to acknowledge broader inequalities to the extent it advocated for government-funded interventions in housing, employment and education. Unfortunately, as Angela Oh, a prominent Korean American lawyer and L.A. resident, told Webster Commission investigators in 1992, the McCone Report’s 1965 recommendations were never enacted. 

In the intervening years, Los Angeles politics and demographics did not remain static.  The city and its council grew in diversity while Tom Bradley built a winning electoral coalition from this racial and ethnic mélange. Yet, to do so, Bradley campaigned on a liberal law and order platform that promised an expansion of the force with reform yet, before and during Bradley’s mayoralty, rather than cede power, the LAPD consolidated it. 

1965-1973

Parker died suddenly of a heart attack in 1966. During his tenure, Parker rooted out corruption in a city that had been awash in it during the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. However, regarding African American and Latino communities, under Parker, the police force treated minorities as second class citizens, and often worse. Tom Reddin briefly followed Parker before Ed Davis eventually succeeded the late chief in 1969. Davis furthered many of Parker’s reforms, but regrettably, also Parker’s racism. 

Click right and left to see photos from the 1965 Watts Uprising:

Armed police stand by as rioters lay face down in the street during the Watts race riots, Los Angeles, California, August 1965 | Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Armed police stand by as rioters lay face down in the street during the Watts race riots, Los Angeles, California, August 1965 | Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Los Angeles, CA: A convoy of trucks rolls into the Watts district loaded with National Guardsmen ordered in to the area to quell Watts Uprising. | Getty Images
Los Angeles, CA: A convoy of trucks rolls into the Watts district loaded with National Guardsmen ordered in to the area to quell Watts Uprising. | Getty Images
National guardsman in a jeep patrol a rubble-strewn street in the Watts neighborhood after a several-day long riot, Los Angeles, California, mid August, 1965.| PhotoQuest/Getty Images
National guardsman in a jeep patrol a rubble-strewn street in the Watts neighborhood after a several-day long riot, Los Angeles, California, mid August, 1965.| PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Reagan’s ascension to the governorship accorded the police increased powers by reinforcing the idea that lenient law enforcement policies led to disorderly and violent cities, the kind that after sunset becomes “the jungle[that] gets a little bit closer,” Reagan would tell audiences. “Between us and the jungle holding it back is the man with the badge.” By 1969, his administration had passed twenty laws aimed at crime reduction and expanding the power of local law enforcement agencies.

At the same time, liberal reforms such as Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty/Great Society programs sought to distribute funds for anti-poverty measures. Over time, these were subsumed into punitive law enforcement initiatives. After Watts, the federal government began withdrawing its funding of these grassroots, often anti-poverty, diversionary programs. Additionally, these efforts “incorporated law enforcement and criminal justice officials” into the “planning and administration” of them, providing the police with increasing authority over the distribution of “social welfare provisions.” In its final years, the Johnson Administration "consolidated War on Poverty programs in new community-based institutions that made possible the rapid entry of police and law enforcement functions in urban and social welfare programs," notes Yale historian Elizabeth Hinton

Johnson's Law Enforcement Assistance Act (LEAA), passed in 1965, funneled this spending into policing. Later, the Safe Streets Act of 1968, the "capstone" of Johnson's Great Society policies, argues Hinton, furthered similar endeavors by investing $400 million “seed money” into War on Crime initiatives rather than anti-poverty measures. Again, it was channeled through the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration which had been established by 1965 act On a national level, it expanded America's carceral state and set the stage for California's, and the country's, vast archipelago of prisons.  

Federal grants boosted the LAPD’s budget from an annual operating cost of $88.7 million in 1966-67 to $198.5 million in 1972, or from over 25% to nearly 35% of the city budget. This increase in expenditures enabled the police department to pursue riot control plans, militarize its weaponry and establish computerized systems that would ultimately expand its surveillance and control over Black and Brown communities. With the Vietnam War raging in Southeast Asia, the language of war also crept into LAPD rhetoric. “As a matter of fact, we preach what the military calls overkill — kill a butterfly with a sledgehammer — feeling that we would rather over police, and control and run the risk of people saying we are doing that,” Chief Tom Reddin testified in 1967. 

Riot Control Materials and Techinques by Col. Rex Applegate, 1981, cover. | Los Angeles Webster Commission records, 1931-1992, USC Digital Libraries
Riot Control Materials and Techinques by Col. Rex Applegate, 1981, cover. | Los Angeles Webster Commission records, 1931-1992, USC Digital Libraries

While the LAPD did expand its community relations programs during the same period, the city's Black and Brown residents saw little difference in actual policing. Official attitudes toward civil rights movements by LAPD officials framed activism as akin to crime. A community watch program established by a coalition of Black activists and residents known as Temporary Alliance of Local Organizations (TALO) in which civilians patrolled Black neighborhoods, known as CAP, was denounced by officials. According to Felker-Kantor, its participants were made subject to "harassment, surveillance, and intimidation," which included the police planting guns and drugs on CAP participants to discredit the organization.   

Residents and other organizations continued to view the LAPD warily. “[T]he people are more severe toward the poli[ce] department now because they know it hasn’t changed,” one South Central resident noted. The moderate Mexican American Political Association (MAPA) reiterated this opinion, describing the newly instituted community relations efforts  as “a cheap merchandising technique to make palatable an unchanging policy of repressive and discriminatory law enforcement.”

1973-1993

With former LAPD officer and council member Tom Bradley now in the mayoral office, many thought police reform was possible. During Parker’s tenure, Bradley lobbed frequent criticism at the department. "Councilman Bradley has been tremendously critical of my departments before the riot, and he is continuing to be," Parker told “Meet the Press” in 1969. Yet Bradley had failed in his first bid at mayor and believed he needed to embrace a liberal vision of “law and order” politics that combined social welfare and educational provisions as well as punitive incarceration. He created the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice Planning (MOCJP) which sought to centralize L.A.’s criminal justice agencies, create a crime control plan and streamline applications for LEAA funds.

Yet many of these programs, though well-intentioned, were eventually engulfed by the LAPD, who used them as a means to gather information on and survey the city’s Black and Brown youth. Critically, MOCJP also strengthened the juvenile courts in the city, which further expanded the LAPD’s power and control over the city's minority youth population, particularly since it treated White offenders very differently from their minority counterparts. For example, across racial lines, young Angelenos were active in gangs, but only African American and Latino teens stood subject to law enforcement. An early manual for one of the city’s anti-gang initiatives, Community Resources Against Hoodlums (CRASH), "devoted only minimal attention to White and Asian gangs," focusing thoroughly on their Black and Latino peers. 

While MOCJP gave Bradley more leverage over LEAA funds and increased his power over law enforcement to some extent, it also wove the police into “the liberal state,” which furthered the LAPD’s authority. The vast majority of LEAA funding that flowed into MOCJP went toward punitive measures rather than diversionary programs or the kind of interventions recommended by the McCone Report. 

Longtime officer and Parker disciple Daryl Gates ascended to the position of police chief in 1978. Like other chiefs, due to the 1925 City Charter, Gates could operate independently. The charter created so many checks and balances, writer John Gregory Dunne noted in 1991, that it basically meant the LAPD operated without accountability. Only the Board of Police Commissioners could reprimand the chief, but a 1937 reform placed the office under civil service protection, which made the chief's removal unimaginably difficult. 

To be fair, the rise in crime during this same period was intense. From 1969 to 1989, the nation’s rate of violent crime increased over threefold, rising from 200 incidents per 1,000 residents to 700; Los Angeles' rate was more than twice the national number, 1,600 per 100,000. Meanwhile, the city's demographics radically changed. In 1926, 1.3 million people lived in Los Angeles, 90% of them White, many of whom originated in the Midwest or South before decamping for California. That’s a sharp contrast with the 1990 numbers: 3.4 million people resided in the city who spoke some 80 languages. They broke down racially into a majority-minority metropolis: 40% Hispanic, 37% White, 13% Black, and 10% Asian/Pacific Islander. What didn't change were the LAPD's demographics, which remained about 68% White with its Black and Latino officers clustered in entry-level patrol jobs at 82% and 80%, respectively. Though as many historians note, diversifying police forces does not necessarily lead to a reduction in brutality as the larger system itself remains predicated on racially discriminatory and punitive enforcement policies.

Simultaneously, the city's economic prospects dimmed. Deindustrialization hit Los Angeles later than most cities, but when it struck in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it ravaged the Black community in particular. Federal funding to cities also plummeted. In 1977, the federal government contributed roughly 18% to the city budget. By 1985, it had shrunk to two percent.

By the early 1990s, the poverty rate in South Central doubled that of the city; 40% of adults in the community were “not in the labor force.” Middle-class African Americans had left for suburban environs in Riverside and San Bernardino. Meanwhile, Bradley hoped to transform L.A. into an economic center for Pacific Rim investment and paid greater attention to attracting Asian investors through the development of the city’s harbors, airports and Downtown than to many of its struggling neighborhoods.

Like his predecessors, Gates displayed open insensitivity toward Los Angeles' minority communities. Shortly after his appointment to commissioner, Gates told a Latino audience that the community's lack of representation in the officer ranks stemmed from inherent laziness. In 1982, he opined that the number of Black deaths due to the department's use of the carotid chokehold was because African Americans' "veins and arteries do not open up as fast as they do on normal people."   Afterward, many White cops referred to their black-and-white patrol cars as "black and normal." Communities responded in kind. Between 1972 and 1990, often with the help of the Coalition Against Police Abuse (CAPA), citizens filed 15,054 complaints and over 5,500 lawsuits, the latter requiring the city to pay out $43 million.

Violence in the City, cover, 1965. | Los Angeles Webster Commission records, 1931-1992, USC Digital Libraries
Violence in the City -- An End or a Beginning? cover, 1965. | Los Angeles Webster Commission records, 1931-1992, USC Digital Libraries

In response to the increase in violent crime, the LAPD initiated “Operation Hammer” in April 1988, which in some ways served as a precursor to “stop and frisk” policies implemented in early 21st century New York. Under Operation Hammer, the city council allotted the LAPD nearly $2.5 million in overtime pay for sweeps of local gang hangouts and corners. Any Black or Brown resident that fit the department's definition of "gang member" would be stopped, searched and arrested. "Tonight we pick 'em up for anything and everything," an LAPD spokesperson told the media. According to critics, the category of “suspected gang member” left non-Anglo youth broadly subject to police abuse or even execution. 

The raids resulted in 24,684 arrests, with 13,746 people reported as gang members. Very few of the arrests were for felonies, however, and many residents swept up in the raids never were charged, yet were entered into databases and criminalized as gang members. “[I]t became increasingly apparent that [Operation Hammer’s] principal catch consisted of drunks, delinquent motorists and teenage curfew violators,” argues Mike Davis.

It would be in this context that the Rodney King verdict on April 29, 1992, sparked the most notorious urban uprising of the late twentieth century resulting in 52 dead, 2,383 injured, $1 billion in damage and over 14,000 arrests. Amazingly, the LAPD proved utterly unprepared for the outburst and, in its unpreparedness, failed to prevent the outbreak of violence while also neglecting numerous L.A. neighborhoods, drawing a perimeter around the uprisings that functioned to protect wealthier and often whiter parts of the city.

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The Webster Commission took 160 days to investigate the riots. It held neighborhood meetings and conducted countless interviews. In her interview with investigators, Angela Oh accused Chief Gates of harboring a “let it burn” attitude toward the city, which trickled down to the rank and file such that the police viewed the community as the enemy. Gates saw policing as warfare and attracted paramilitary personalities to the force. Jose Lozano, then publisher of La Opinion, the largest Spanish language newspaper in the city at the time, made similar arguments. Though also acknowledging what he viewed as inflammatory rhetoric by politicians and community leaders, Lozano also pointed to a “suppressed rage” among the city’s minority citizens who were responding to both the King verdict and a history of police brutality. City Council member, Nate Holden (10th District), agreed, accusing the broader criminal justice system of telling Black Angelenos, "you don't matter," adding that obvious differences existed between the policing of White and Black residents.

Despite such testimony, the report, "The City in Crisis," criticized the LAPD for its lack of preparedness and advocated for community policing models to improve relations between the police and residents. Like the McCone Report, it never addressed the systematic and structural racism embedded within the LAPD, but unlike its predecessor, which encouraged government-funded interventions into housing, education and job training, in an era of neoliberal urban governance, the Webster Commission made no such recommendations. 

The Community Policing Challenge by Robert Trojanowicz and Bonnie Bucqueroux, Vol. 1 No. 4. | Los Angeles Webster Commission records, 1931-1992, USC Digital Libraries
The Community Policing Challenge by Robert Trojanowicz and Bonnie Bucqueroux, Vol. 1 No. 4. | Los Angeles Webster Commission records, 1931-1992, USC Digital Libraries

In the aftermath of 1992, Daryl Gates eventually stepped down, while Los Angeles residents passed Charter Amendment F, which among other reforms, reduced the power of the police chief and made his or her removal more possible. Yet, the election of Richard Riordan, who campaigned for the mayoralty on a law and order platform, blunted reform. Not until the Rampart corruption of the 1990s led to federal oversight through a 2001 consent decree, which ended in 2013, were real reforms implemented. 

In the end, even in an ostensibly liberal city, the power of law enforcement and its subsequent effect on minority communities can go unchecked.  

Additional Reading

Carver, Helen. Helen Carver to Lawrence Spivak, September 1, 1965. Letter. From Library of Congress, Lawrence I. Spivak Papers, Manuscript Division.

Davis, Mike. "City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles." New York: Verso, 2006.

Dunne, John Gregory. “Law & Disorder in Los Angeles.” New York Review of Books, October 10, 1991.

Felker-Kantor, Max. "Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD." Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2018.

Hinton, Elizabeth, "From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America." Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.

Iler, F.W. F.W. Iler to Lawrence Spivak, August 30, 1965. Letter. From Library of Congress, Lawrence I. Spivak Papers, Manuscript Division.

Saul, Scott. “Gridlocks of Rage: The Watts and Rodney King Riots.” In "A Companion to Los Angeles," edited by William Deverell and Gregory Hise. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Sides, Josh. "L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present." Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003. 

Thompson, Heather Ann. “Understanding Rioting in Postwar Urban America.” Journal of Urban History 26, no. 3 (March 2000)

Van Horn, Kathleen. Kathleen Van Horn to Lawrence Spivak, August 29, 1965. Letter. From Library of Congress, Lawrence I. Spivak Papers, Manuscript Division.

 

The project to digitize the records from the Los Angeles Webster Commission has been made possible by a major grant to the USC Libraries from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Top Image: Riot Control Materials and Techinques by Col. Rex Applegate, 1981, cover. | Los Angeles Webster Commission records, 1931-1992, USC Digital Libraries

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