Justice  /  Antecedent

Liberal Reform Threatens to Expand the Police Power – Just as it Did in the Past

How calls for “real reforms” have resulted in measures that further shield police from real accountability.

Calls to defund the police have grown in recent weeks following the nationwide outpouring of protest in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin. As the demands for the defunding of the police suggest, the goal of activists is not limited solely to removing or prosecuting so-called “bad apple” officers. Instead, they are centered on systemic changes to the very nature of policing in American society. 

Although pressure for defunding the police - and dismantling the police in the case of Minneapolis - has gained momentum, Democrats do not wholly support such measures. Most notably, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has explicitly opposed proposals to defund the police. Not only does Biden oppose moves to address systemic problems of American policing, but has proposed expanding police funding. “I do not support defunding police,” Biden wrote in USA Today. “The better answer is to give police departments the resources they need to implement meaningful reforms, and to condition other federal dollars on completing those reforms.” Stating that he has “long been a firm believer in the power of community policing,” Biden has suggested providing police with an additional $300 million to “to reinvigorate community policing in our country,” alongside a host of procedural reforms including national use of force standard, increased use of body cameras, and diversifying police departments,  

Yet Biden’s “real reforms” are part of a long history of liberal responses to police violence that further embed the police power into the liberal state. In the process, this liberal law-and-order, as I call it in my book Policing Los Angeles, led to the expansion of police power and contributed to the reliance on the police to contain the very fallout of social and economic inequality that activists are now rising up against.  

Liberal law-and-order was a hallmark of the twenty-year mayoral administration of Tom Bradley in Los Angeles, the city’s first African American mayor. Bradley, a 21-year veteran of the LAPD left the force in 1961 to enter a career in politics, becoming a city councilman in 1963. Bradley’s career as a councilman was marked by strong criticism of the LAPD. After the 1965 Watts uprising, Bradley called for reforms to address problems of racism within the department and for greater civilian oversight. Yet, instead of reducing the police power, during Bradley’s mayoral administration the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) become more militarized, more powerful, and more present in the daily life of the city’s residents of color. This led to the largest moment of urban unrest in American history in 1992.