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Police Have Long History of Responding to Black Movements by Playing the Victim

Amid calls to defund police, cops are framing themselves as victims. We must remember who is really being brutalized.

Indeed, the response from Los Angeles has been to deflect blame from the police as the root of the problem. “Eric Garcetti panicked and blamed the men and women of the LAPD for his failed leadership,” Jamie McBride, director of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, said.

But, as Black-led abolitionist organizations emphasize, the police are not victims. The victims are those brutalized, harassed and killed by the police. Rather than an embattled minority, activists have long pointed out the ways the police built their capacity to repress. As the Coalition Against Police Abuse, a multiracial anti-police abuse organization formed in Los Angeles in 1976, observed, the police acted as “armed enforcers of racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression … [and] are in our communities for the purpose of intimidation, confinement and control.” More recently, groups such as Critical Resistance and Black Lives Matter point to the overwhelming financial and political support the police receive in cities nationwide. As the People’s Budget LA suggests, the LAPD is not an innocent “victim,” but the recipient of 54 percent of the city’s unrestricted general fund.

The strategies employed by the police to paint themselves as “victims” are not new. Law enforcement officials have long portrayed the police as under attack. Such arguments threaten to undermine the much-needed moves toward defunding the police. Looking to the LAPD’s response to court decisions and proposed reforms after the 1965 Watts uprising provides important lessons for the contemporary moment.

Following the California State Supreme Court’s 1955 Cahan ruling, which restricted the use of illegally obtained evidence, LAPD Chief of Police William Parker called the limitation on officers “criminal protecting” and warned that “a dangerous custom has arisen in America wherein the hapless police officer is a defenseless target for ridicule and abuse from every quarter.” As court decisions provided much-needed protection for suspects and defendants, the police portrayed themselves as even more under attack. Parker believed the decisions “coddled criminals” and threatened the power of the police. “Violence and crime have grown to staggering proportions while the police find themselves tragically weakened in their attempts to control the problem,” Parker proclaimed. Between 1955 and 1965, however, crimes rates in Los Angeles fluctuated — even declined in multiple years. Crucially, crime rates in the city more often reflected the ways the LAPD chose to target behaviors deemed “disorderly” for aggressive policing, such as vagrancy and civil rights protest. To the police, any criticism would result in increased crime, disorder and violence.