Battling America’s warrior police

After the death of George Floyd and the violent suppression of Black Lives Matter protests forces across the US have come under heavy scrutiny. Andrea Domanick looks at the growing demands to demilitarise and defund them.

It’s a sunbeaten May afternoon in Los Angeles’ Fairfax District. The gentrified central enclave is known more for its hours-long Supreme store queues and Jewish delis than for riot police and tear gas. But just a few blocks from the streets that birthed Odd Future and a thousand sneakerhead dreams, CJ Montano, a 24-year-old music student and former US Marine, is standing in the middle of Beverly Boulevard. His arms are raised as a crowd of fellow demonstrators protesting the public murder of George Floyd retreats behind him. Leave the area!” a Los Angeles Police Department officer shouts as a line of cops in full combat gear charges towards the crowd.

Where’s our less-lethal? Less-lethal up!” the officer calls to the squadron, who load shotguns with beanbag projectiles – the less-lethal” munitions to which he refers – and begin firing.

Montano, hands up as he steps backwards, is shot in the head. He collapses to the pavement like a puppet with its strings cut. He’s suffered gruesome injuries. As fellow protesters rush over to pick him up, the officers reload their guns and fire again.

The incident, captured by LAPD body camera footage and released by the department on 31 July, is under investigation, as are more than 50 complaints about LAPD behaviour (including 28 allegations of excessive force) filed in the first days of LA’s George Floyd protests.

There has yet to be a formal assessment of how many demonstrators were hurt at the hands of the LAPD in those early weeks, or in the months of demonstrations that have followed. Meanwhile, LAPD chief Michel Moore, who in response to initial rioting said that Floyd’s death was on [demonstrators’] hands as much as it is those officers”, has changed his tone – though not without swift political backlash – conceding that he did witness officers inappropriately using batons at the protests.

I couldn’t come to terms with [the idea of]: what are we doing with that level of force? That’s part of this investigation,” Moore says via Zoom from his office in downtown’s LAPD headquarters. I’m asking the public for their patience, and I will look at each of those instances with a clearer eye.”

But for activist groups like Black Lives Matter and others, the damage has already been done.

The officers are carrying out what they perceive as the mission and direction of [the] LAPD, so until that has stopped, until there clearly is some transparency and accountability, it will continue,” says BLM-Los Angeles organiser and activist Paula Minor. Over the chapter’s seven-year history, she’s been a fixture at city council and police commission meetings, demanding accountability for the deaths of hundreds of overwhelmingly Black and Latino residents at the hands of local law enforcement.
The chapter has filed a class action lawsuit against the LAPD for its alleged mistreatment of protesters and its abuses of power during the demonstrations.

Although Moore backtracked on his wildly tone-deaf comment about the protesters within minutes of making it, the declaration splayed a long-festering divide between the limousine liberalism of the city’s political and economic old guard and a new generation of young, progressive, multi-racial constituents who had finally had enough.

I spent eight years in the army, and if any of us had behaved the way I saw the LAPD behave that day, we would’ve been stripped of rank so fast it’s not even funny,” says Christopher Castro, a 38-year-old IT consultant who saw combat in Iraq, and who witnessed fellow protesters being tear-gassed and hit with batons at the Fairfax protests. What Moore has said and done is nowhere near enough. The culture of policing is the root of the issue. Unless he’s willing to scrap the current model and start from the ground up, it’s just that meme of slapping tape on a leaking water tank.”

The demonstrations on 30 May in the Fairfax District (and across the city, from the tent cities of Skid Row to Beverly Hills, whose iconic city sign was emblazoned with Eat the Rich” by the day’s end), marked a flashpoint.

Historically, protests in LA have rarely strayed far from the gritty administrative core of downtown and adjacent neighbourhoods. But June saw them become a fixture across the city and the county, from impromptu street corner sign-waving to massive, well-organised marches that have shut down freeways and even served as a backdrop for YG’s FTP music video.

These actions were largely peaceful, but clashes with police continued. Unprecedented city- and county-wide curfews saw law enforcement put anyone who dared linger onto buses, where they would remain for hours in close quarters – coronavirus be damned – with their hands zip-tied behind their backs. By 2 June police and sheriff’s deputies had arrested more than 3,000 people, about 2,500 of whom were collared for allegedly violating curfews or dispersal orders.

The LAPD was all that was wrong with American policing: an impudent, often arrogant paramilitary goon squad.”

Meanwhile, businesses across the city scrambled to cover doors and windows with sheets of plywood, despite very little looting or violence beyond the first weekend (take a stroll through any given neighbourhood in the midst of an uprising, and the number and type of boarded up store-fronts will tell you a lot about its relationship with its residents).

Across America in spring and summer 2020, police and their heavy-handed, often brutal tactics have been facing a public reckoning. In cities ranging from Minneapolis to New York, Washington DC to Portland, they have been questioned about their purpose, their role and their funding. The defund-the-police movement – a notion that once seemed unthinkable in the law and order-loving United States – has now gained serious social and political traction.

Here on the ground in America’s second-most populous city, the upheaval and controversy rocking the soul of the metropolis over the past few months has underscored the fragility of a police department once considered a leader in the battle to redeem American policing.

Despite nearly three decades of reform following the 1992 LA Riots, new policies like the use of less lethal” force and body cameras have only served to treat the symptoms of a much larger disease: American warrior” policing, a militarised law-enforcement culture run on suppressive, search-and-destroy tactics, grossly oversized budgets and an us-versus-them mentality.

Civil rights advocates say this culture must be transformed – internally, and by addressing the structural realities that disproportionately affect Black communities – before any substantial, lasting change can be seen.

In the decade following the 1991 beating of Black motorist Rodney King, and the 1992 riots that followed the acquittal of the four accused officers, the LAPD was rightly viewed as the embodiment of all that was wrong with American policing: an impudent, often arrogant paramilitary goon squad that would help inspire both director Paul Verhoeven’s satirical 1987 masterpiece RoboCop and NWA’s scorching 1988 invective Fuck Tha Police. But since then, the city has made imperfect, although real progress in transforming the department from its history of repressive and often violent policing into one that’s committed to community policing and reducing its use of force.

Reforms passed after the 1992 riots, for example, limited the tenure, power and independence of the department’s audaciously out-of-control chiefs, while expanding the authority of the civilian police commission (the agency that reviews and helps improve police conduct and policy). In 2000 the US Justice Department forced the LAPD to clean up its act – a process that was overseen by a tough federal judge for almost a decade before the order was finally relaxed.

At the same time, two reform-driven chiefs (William Bratton and Charlie Beck) working alongside civilians and the courts, trained two new generations of LAPD officers (2002 to 2018) in community partnership policing, de-escalation and the use of body and patrol car cameras. Policy shifts such as limits on the use of force, the implementation of less-lethal” munitions (such as foam bullets and beanbags) and improved discipline would ultimately help reduce police killings.

Until a recent outcry, even the Los Angeles School Police Department was outfitted with M16 assault rifles and a tank.”

So in many ways it would seem the LAPD is better prepared than most of the country’s police departments to meet the civil rights demands posed by organisations like Black Lives Matter – demands which include the prosecution of police violence and the reallocation of bloated law-enforcement budgets to withered social services, which would help improve the structural inequalities that perpetuate crime in the first place.

But the LAPD, as with law enforcement across the country, continues to fail in its mission of protecting and serving the vulnerable communities who should have benefited the most from nearly 30 years of reform.

Top-level progress did not help Grechario Mack, the 30-year-old Black father of two who was shot in the back and killed by two LAPD officers while suffering a mental health crisis in 2018. It did not help the dozens of Black and brown Angelenos who were entered into California’s gang database after being falsely identified by three of the LAPD’s elite Metropolitan units. And progress hasn’t helped long-time LAPD Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Sergeant Tim Colomey.

On 29 July Colomey filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the department. He alleged that the unit is run by a self-proclaimed SWAT Mafia” whose leaders glamorise the use of lethal force and direct the promotions of officers who share the same values”, while retaliating against officers who attempt to call them out.

Those officers are doing what they thought they were supposed to do,” says BLM-LA’s Minor, referring to Colomey’s allegations of the LAPD’s use of excessive force. They’re not going outside the lines: these are the parameters the department sets for them, had accepted, and would not hold them accountable for. These are people who are caught up in that system, working in that system. And that’s what that system does.”

The current crisis facing modern American police departments goes back to their origins in the slave patrols of the 18th Century, when armed units of white men were responsible for hunting down fugitive slaves, instilling terror to deter revolts and disciplining enslaved people into submission. Their focus was less on crime than responding to and suppressing disorder, an objective that would remain well past the abolition of slavery and see Black Americans continue to be denied their civil rights under the segregation-enforcing Jim Crow laws that existed until the 1960s.

With systemic racism in its DNA, the US, rather than truly reckoning with the country’s atrocious racist legacy, has institutionalised a type of law enforcement that operates on principles of mass incarceration, containment and suppression. This has not only affected Black lives, but also indigenous peoples, immigrants, ethnic minorities, queer folk, protesters and anyone else considered a threat to the institutionalised powers-that-be.

As then-FBI director James B Comey put it in a 2015 speech: All of us in law enforcement must be honest enough to acknowledge that much of our history is not pretty. At many points in American history law enforcement enforced a status quo that was often brutally unfair to disadvantaged groups…
That experience should be part of every American’s consciousness, and law enforcement’s role in that experience, including in recent times, must be remembered.” It is, he said, summing up, our cultural inheritance”.

Today that inheritance lives on in what civil rights activist and lawyer Connie Rice calls an entrenched warrior [police] culture of impunity”, shored up by the big-budget militarisation of the so-called War on Drugs and, since 9/​11, $34 billion in terrorism grants” from the Department of Homeland Security. These programmes have supplied America’s police forces with surplus military guns, helicopters, uniforms and other combat equipment. Until a recent outcry, even the Los Angeles School Police Department was outfitted with M16 assault rifles and a tank.

Rice has spent decades both prosecuting and helping reform the LAPD, and is a former member of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Right now, they look at core communities as staging grounds to get into SWAT, or staging grounds to carry out what they think of as war,” she says. They’re not soldiers, yet they paramilitarise themselves. They’re like pretend soldiers. And that’s not what a peace officer’ is,” she adds, using the formal legal term for civic law enforcement personnel. That is not what serve and protect’ is. So they’ve got their mission all bollocksed up. They’re rewarded for the wrong things.”

Warrior policing operates on a thin blue line” ethos of us-versus-them that’s legitimised and reinforced by the members of society who benefit from it. For those on the right” side of the line, there is an implicit and often unconscious expectation that law enforcement will maintain the divide. This allows them to believe the system is working as it should, while remaining detached from the militant methods that fuel mass incarceration.

These includes proactive” policing tactics like stop-and-frisk and traffic stops, which are designed to root out violent criminals but disproportionately impact Black citizens and other minorities. A 2019 Los Angeles Times investigation, for example, found that the LAPD’s Metro unit stopped Black drivers five times more than would be expected given their share of the population.

Police have been assigned to do those tasks that the rest of society does not want to do,” Minor says. They have been assigned to be the people that show our worst side. They’re the people who are allowed to beat up protesters. If we want to beat somebody up because they’re on our street or in our yard, no, we can’t do that. But we assign that responsibility, as the culture in the United States, to the police.”

Civil rights advocates say that moving forward from this fraught legacy must begin with a fundamental shift from warrior policing to a culture of guardianship that rewards protective, problem-solving police who work in collaboration with the communities they serve. That cultural transformation must come from within the department itself.

You can litigate, you can legislate, you can protest, you can train for implicit bias, and all of it will improve small aspects of policing around the edges,” Rice says. But until you change the incentives, the mission and the culture, and until officers agree with that, you’re not going to see any change on the ground. You’re not going to see any change in the treatment of the Rodney Kings and the George Floyds of the world if you don’t change the mission, which right now is to carry out mass incarceration with search-and-destroy enforcement.”

There are precedents that show this can work: reform led by progressive officers within the LAPD’s once-infamous K‑9 unit (whose dogs had bitten 900 people between 1989 and 1992, most of whom were Black and brown men and boys) saw the bite rate plummet from 80 per cent to five per cent. And it stuck.

It’s the only case I’ve done where the change lasted for more than 20 years,” says Rice, who represented victims of the dog attacks in a class-action lawsuit against the department. And it was because the cops were given the power to rewrite their entire charter, their entire mission, what they got promoted for and how the dogs were trained. They got rid of the cops who were using the dogs to torture people. That’s when I learned the lesson that you have to work through the inside agitators.”

Community liaison partnerships have been similarly successful. Rice says that the rate of gang-related retaliation shootings drops massively after a gang homicide when trained intervention workers from those communities help mediate, compared with cops alone.

The road to transforming police culture will be long, and the battle hard won.”

Though imperfect, the Community Safety Partnership (CSP) programme Rice helped co-found in 2011 with former chief Beck has been reported as helping reduce crime and is making families in public housing developments feel safer. The programme places specially trained officers in housing project communities to work alongside neighbourhood leaders and residents and to develop relationships with the people they serve. Rather than arrest suspects, officers work with residents to solve problems through tactics such as verbal conflict resolution and coaching local sports teams.

You invest in a community by professionalising and training and paying members of that community to fix their own problems. You empower them and give them the resources,” Rice says. Right now, we’ve got to make it get back to being done right. And then we’ve got to take it up to the next level, which means investing on the community side.”

On 27 July LA Mayor Eric Garcetti announced the formalisation of the programme into the new Community Safety Partnership Bureau, which aims to improve relationships between law enforcement and residents. Overseeing it is newly promoted deputy chief Emada Tingirides (only the second Black woman to achieve that rank in the department’s history) who will work in partnership with a civilian bureau commander.

But the programme is not without its critics. The same UCLA study that reported the CSP’s success with crime reduction also said that challenges remain. There is still confusion among officers about its mission and a lack of programming for the at-risk 14- to 25-year-old demographic. The new CSP Bureau has also come under fire from BLM-LA, which says the programme misunderstands what they’re fighting for and only serves the department’s public image.

Moore is not re-imagining public safety. He’s expanding what should be pulled back,” Minor says. They are not trying to identify things that can be moved away from the police department. The number of non-violent contacts they have in the community can be done by someone else – not armed officers. That money should not be going to the LAPD. We’re asking for community-driven, non-police approaches to public safety,” she continues, flagging one of the key proposals of the defund-the-police movement. Moore, and the mayor, are going totally counter to that.”

The road to transforming police culture will be long, and the battle hard won. Within the LAPD a civil war between warriors” and guardians” is brewing. It’s something chief Michel Moore himself is aware of. Cops hate two things: change and the way things are. So I recognise that there can be that tension,” he acknowledges. But I think that what the moment calls for today is that people are looking at our legitimacy. They are saying: Can we trust this department with some of the images you and I have both seen?’”

Three months after the murder of George Floyd, calls to defund the police continue to echo across LA and the country. The hard work of re-imagining the future of policing – and the steps that must be taken to get there – lies ahead. Moore (who has never personally met with BLM-LA despite its weekly presence at police commission meetings) says he’s willing to offload non-police tasks such as homeless intervention and mental health crisis response to other agencies. First though he, the commission and City Hall must work to earn back the trust of a city in turmoil.

There’s a need for candour and a certain level of humility to recognise we can do better as an organisation,” Moore acknowledges. And, as a chief, my view is to be proud, but not to be arrogant. To have confidence, but also believe that there is more to be learned, and lean into that.”

Rice, for her part, believes that there is too much investment in law enforcement, but says that defunding must be done strategically. You don’t do it with a hatchet. You need to do it in a way that actually builds the guardian police. Because if you just hack [at the LAPD’s staff and budget], you’ll get rid of all the progressive younger people of colour, because they’re the last hire, and you’ll be stuck with all the old guard, who don’t give a shit what you think.”

The larger mission to fund social services and communities, she says, must be broadened beyond local police department initiatives and come from deeper pockets in order to be successful. That money [from local police departments] might fund a community centre, but it isn’t going to fund the viability of an entire community,” Rice says. If you’re going to talk about the scale, you’re talking about every single department’s budget, and you’re talking about all the subsidies to the rich, and you’re talking about huge [military and defence] contracting [budgets] in Washington. That’s the money.”

Past the clouds of tear gas and rows of riot shields, lie the compounding challenges of a public health crisis, historic unemployment and unprecedented political turmoil.”

Summer is waning in America. The passion and outrage that characterised the tidal waves of demonstrators surging onto the streets has been subsumed by an out-of-control pandemic. And, as President Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice recently put it, the entire protest movement risks being reduced to a fleeting instant of heightened consciousness, one that dissipates in the fog of pandemic, economic recession and a bitter presidential campaign”.

But what will surely remain is this fact: tinkering around the edges of reforming America’s police departments, and trying to make them marginally less violent and systemically repressive, will no longer be part of the serious social justice conversation. In fact, it will absolutely no longer be the objective.

What the new goals are, and now must be, is simple but powerful: the complete re-imagining of public safety and community and the role law enforcement must play in it; what transformative changes should be immediate and which could be longer-term; and how we, as a society, are to get there.

Let’s frame this in a way that lets people know the real cost, not just gestures and slogans,” concludes Connie Rice with a note of purposeful action. Right now we have a spiral of poverty that’s accelerating. There’s no upward mobility for the people I’m talking about. They’ve been worse than left behind – they’ve been ground into the dust. And if you’re going to refund these communities, if you’re going to recover from that hole we’ve been digging to build a mountain of riches for the rich, you’re going to have to recover that. You’re going to have to take it back.”

On the streets of LA, Minneapolis, New York, Portland and beyond, a path has been forged. Ahead of it, past the clouds of tear gas and rows of riot shields, lie the compounding challenges of a public health crisis, historic unemployment and unprecedented political turmoil.

As America plummets further into existential freefall, now is the time to keep our voices raised: Whose streets?” we demand, Our streets!”

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