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The Unrest of Watts and Rodney King: A History of Policing in Los Angeles

Core Concepts
The author argues that the historical events of the Watts Uprising and Rodney King Riots highlight systemic issues within policing in Los Angeles, emphasizing the need for lasting change.
The content delves into the Watts Uprising of 1965 and the Rodney King Riots of 1992, showcasing how these events were rooted in economic, political, and social grievances. It explores the failures of government reports to address police brutality and structural racism within the LAPD. The narrative highlights a history of community responses to oppressive policing practices, leading to calls for reform and accountability.
$40 million in property damage resulted from the Watts Uprising. Over 14,000 arrests were made during the Rodney King Riots. LAPD's budget increased from $88.7 million in 1966-67 to $198.5 million in 1972. Federal funding to Los Angeles dropped from roughly 18% to two percent between 1977 and 1985. Operation Hammer led to over 24,000 arrests with many individuals entered into databases as gang members.
"Between us and the jungle holding it back is the man with the badge." - Ronald Reagan "[Operation Hammer’s] principal catch consisted of drunks, delinquent motorists and teenage curfew violators." - Mike Davis "The people are more severe toward the police department now because they know it hasn’t changed." - South Central Los Angeles resident

Deeper Inquiries

How did federal funding changes impact policing strategies in Los Angeles during this period?

During the period discussed, federal funding changes significantly impacted policing strategies in Los Angeles. The Law Enforcement Assistance Act (LEAA) and subsequent initiatives like the Safe Streets Act of 1968 funneled substantial funds into law enforcement agencies. This influx of money allowed for the expansion of police budgets, which enabled departments like the LAPD to invest in riot control plans, militarize weaponry, and establish surveillance systems. The increase in funding also led to a shift towards punitive measures rather than community-based interventions or anti-poverty programs. The LEAA specifically channeled resources into policing efforts rather than social welfare provisions, contributing to the growth of America's carceral state. By investing heavily in law enforcement functions within urban areas, these federal programs empowered police forces with greater authority over marginalized communities. In Los Angeles, this translated into an increase in arrests and aggressive tactics targeting Black and Brown residents under initiatives like Operation Hammer. Overall, federal funding changes played a significant role in shaping policing strategies by prioritizing law enforcement approaches over social welfare solutions and exacerbating tensions between minority communities and the police.

How can historical events like Watts and Rodney King inform current discussions on police reform?

Historical events such as the Watts Uprising and the Rodney King verdict offer valuable insights that can inform current discussions on police reform. These incidents highlight systemic issues within law enforcement agencies that have persisted over time. For example, both cases underscore how systemic racism has shaped law enforcement policies and practices when responding to urban uprisings or instances of police brutality. The recommendations proposed by commissions following these events provide lessons for contemporary reform efforts. While reports like the McCone Report after Watts emphasized government-funded interventions in housing, education, and employment as crucial steps towards addressing underlying grievances leading to unrests; subsequent reports post-Rodney King focused more on community policing models without addressing structural racism within police departments. Moreover, examining past responses from city officials and law enforcement leaders sheds light on how power dynamics influence reforms. The resistance to change seen after Watts through Chief William Parker's tenure contrasts with Mayor Tom Bradley's attempts at implementing reforms during his mayoralty but facing challenges due to entrenched structures within LAPD. By studying these historical events through a critical lens today’s policymakers can better understand the need for comprehensive reforms that address not only individual behaviors but also institutional biases embedded within law enforcement agencies.

What role did systemic racism play in shaping law enforcement policies in response to urban uprisings?

Systemic racism played a pivotal role in shaping law enforcement policies when responding to urban uprisings such as those witnessed during Watts and Rodney King incidents. In both cases, deep-rooted racial biases influenced how authorities perceived minority communities leading them often treated individuals unfairly based on their race. Historically marginalized groups faced discriminatory practices from local governments resulting from racist attitudes prevalent among officials including those working within LAPD itself who viewed minorities as second-class citizens needing strict control rather than protection. Police brutality against Black residents was rampant due partly because officers were trained view African Americans Latinos suspects automatically criminals thus justifying use excessive force even deadly situations. Additionally systematic inequalities housing employment opportunities contributed feelings frustration anger among minority populations eventually boiling over violent protests riots These examples demonstrate how systemic racism not only shapes individual interactions between officers civilians but also influences broader policy decisions made by institutions responsible public safety