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The hidden obstacle to police accountability

This image made from video shot by George

This image made from video shot by George Holliday shows police officers beating a man, later identified as Rodney King, on March 31, 1991. Credit: AP/George Holliday

A police officer in Brooklyn Center, Minn., shot and killed Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, following a traffic stop. The shooting, which occurred a few miles from the ongoing trial of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd, has led to an outburst of protest decrying police violence against Black people in cities across the country.

The killing of Wright has, once again, led to questions about police accountability and how an officer could mistake her gun for a Taser. Focusing on the decisions of individual officers, however, misses the fundamental problem: the police are an insulated political institution within cities empowered to enforce a racialized social order. Although activists and reform efforts have, rightly, focused on the role of police unions and the Police Bill of Rights in insulating departments from oversight, the nature of municipal political structures has also been a key element of allowing police to avoid accountability.

For example, Brooklyn Center is run by a city manager who has administrative power over municipal employees, including the police. The city manager appointed by the city council, Curt Boganey, refused calls to fire the officer who shot Wright and one person at a news conference accused him of "working harder to protect a killer cop than a victim of police murder." The mayor, Mike Elliot, by contrast, called for the officer to be removed but did not have the power to do so. So on Monday the city council voted to grant the mayor "command authority" over the department. Hours later the mayor announced the firing of the city manager. As this story reveals, unelected city managers are a relatively unknown — but increasingly common — part of how many American cities are structured that limit civilian oversight of the police.

The insulation of police power within city administrative structures is not new or limited to the city manager system. Perhaps no example illustrated the ways municipal political structures protected the police better than in Los Angeles in the years before the 1991 beating of Rodney King. In fact, the limits on civilian oversight of the police date to the Progressive era.

Reformers pushed through a series of city charter reforms in Los Angeles between 1889 and 1937 that created a strong city council and weak mayor alongside a commission structure to oversee city departments. When it came to the police, new rounds of charter reform in the 1920s were intended to professionalize the department by removing political influence out of concerns that corrupt police officers enforced the will of politicians. As a result, the charter limited the mayor's direct power over the police department and removed politicians from meddling in officer discipline.

Even more crucially, the police themselves organized to remove civilian control. The Los Angeles Fire and Police Protective League and future chief of police William Parker successfully pushed forward charter reform in 1937 granting the police chief civil service protection. Because the chief wrote a self-evaluation on a yearly basis, there was never evidence of "just cause" for removal. Unsurprisingly, Daryl Gates, who was chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) for 14 years from 1978 to 1992, routinely rated his department "excellent" in all categories, including for community relations in the year before the beating of Rodney King. In other words, the chief of police had virtual life tenure.

Perhaps most importantly, Section 202, solidified in charter reforms during the 1930s, conferred all power of discipline over officers to the chief. Even when the Internal Affairs Division sustained complaints of officer misconduct, the chief of police could overturn the decision, something that Gates later did routinely in the 1980s, especially in cases of excessive force.

The charter reforms of the 1920s and '30s set the foundation for the growth of the LAPD's power in the post-World War II era. It also ensured that any alteration to this political structure would require charter reform through a referendum voted upon by residents, and the police wielded their authority to oppose any changes that threatened to increase oversight. When Parker became chief of police in 1950, for example, he extended the LAPD's insulation from civilian oversight and professionalized the department by raising standards and bolstering the internal disciplinary process.

Although the mayor-appointed Board of Police Commissioners oversaw the department, Parker organized politically, gaining significant support among White residents, and prevented police commission interference in the department's activities. City council member and future mayor Tom Bradley criticized the department following the Watts uprising of 1965. But Parker, along with his disciples, Ed Davis and Gates, who went on to lead the department from 1969 until 1992, received more authority to combat crime through the 1970s and '80s. They knew they could not be fired and had significant support from White residents and conservative city council members. It should not be surprising, then, that police chiefs often acted as if they had more power than the politicians who appointed them.

During the city's war on drugs and gangs in the 1980s, Gates's police force routinely terrorized Black Angelenos. Police conducted militarized drug raids that destroyed people's homes and massive gangs sweeps that led to the blanket arrest of thousands of Black youth, all with no repercussions for the department. Black residents, quite rightly, viewed the LAPD as violent, racist and unaccountable.

When the 1991 videotape of four officers beating King became national news, Gates's defense that it was an aberration — the "bad apples" defense — led to widespread outrage and political pressure for charter reform. Indeed, Black Angelenos and activists from the Coalition against Police Abuse (CAPA) had long argued that racist police violence was a result of an unaccountable police force. They called for community control of the police, notably in the form of a civilian review board, which they failed to achieve because of opposition from the police and political officials.

But the momentum resulted in the passage with overwhelming support of Charter Amendment F on the heels of the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion. The amendment limited the chief's tenure to two five-year terms, provided the mayor and police commission more authority to fire the chief and appointed a civilian member to disciplinary panels. Such reforms created the foundation for a transformation in the relationship between the police and the city power structure.

Hoping to maintain police power and autonomy, Gates and the Police Protective League (PPL) fought the measure. Gates, using a similar argument about politically corrupt police departments made by reformers in the 1930s, viewed it as a "power play — it will politicize the Police Department right down to the man on the street," he said, while PPL president Bill Violante called it "a sham, a bunch of garbage."

Public support for charter reform, however, was a clear rejection of Gates and a political system that granted the police unregulated authority. Groups such as the Urban League believed that it represented a "new climate" and "sends out the message to officers on the street that says, 'Hey, this is a new day, you can't brutalize people anymore.'"

To be clear, Charter Amendment F did not end police brutality in the city. As activists with the Labor/Community Strategy Center pointed out at the time, the charter amendment failed to address systemic problems of racist policing. Indeed, the changes enabled the Board of Police Commissioners to remove a police chief after one five-year term, as they did with Willie Williams in 1997 and Bernard Parks in 2002, but have not solved the problem of police violence and power. The PPL and the department itself continued to fight external oversight until the Rampart scandal exposed widespread corruption and use of excessive force in the department's gang units, leading to a federal consent decree overseeing the department in 2001.

Alongside defunding the police, eliminating the police bill of rights and limiting the influence of police unions, ensuring police accountability and reducing police power require structural changes to municipal authority to remove barriers to oversight. Only then will community control of the police and reimagining of the public safety become fully possible.

Max Felker-Kantor is a visiting assistant professor of history and African American studies at Ball State University and author of the new book, "Policing Los Angeles: Race, Resistance, and the Rise of the LAPD." This piece was written for The Washington Post.

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