Justice  /  Antecedent

What the LAPD Recruitment Ad on Breitbart Says About the Department’s History

Becoming an agency that wouldn't dream of advertising on Breitbart will require deep changes.
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

Revelations of a Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) advertisement recruiting potential officers on the ultra-right-wing news outlet Breitbart has led to considerable, and justifiable, ire among critics of the department and raised significant questions about the recruiting practices of police departments across the country.

The LAPD has denied placing the ad on the Breitbart site, stating that the department contracts with Google to place job ads on its behalf by using algorithms — a troubling practice in and of itself. And although the department has stated that the site conflicts with the department’s “core values” and it has suspended all Google ads, the appearance of a police recruitment advertisement in a venue known for its criticism of people of color and defense of President Trump’s “law and order” rhetoric should not be all that surprising given the LAPD’s history. Over the past 60 years, framing its work as an effort to contain perceived threats to social order, the LAPD has expanded its power and aggressively targeted the city’s communities of color — all in the name of law and order.

When William H. Parker was appointed chief of the LAPD in 1950, he worked to professionalize the department, including its recruitment policies. He instituted a rigorous selection and training program for new officers, including standards of weight and height, a comprehensive examination process, a long probationary period for training, an emphasis on science and technology, and a research division. Realizing that television was a valuable recruiting tool, Parker also worked with Hollywood producers to construct a positive image of the LAPD in shows such as “Dragnet” and “Adam-12.”

Parker was also rumored to have advertised for recruits from the Jim Crow South, because it would reinforce the department’s conservative politics and not-so-subtle racism. The department included a substantial number of officers who followed and supported the far-right John Birch Society. And the Fire and Police Protective League, the labor union for police, often promoted far-right rallies and protests.

Such recruitment strategies, selection processes and political loyalties created a police force that was predominantly white and not reflective of the diverse Los Angeles demographics — in 1964, there were no more than 325 black officers out of a police force of roughly 5,000 officers. As a result, residents did not see themselves reflected in the department and members of the police force operated with an “us vs. them” attitude toward the public it was supposed to protect.

Under Parker, the LAPD’s central goal was to maintain law and order at all costs, and this shaped the culture of the department. The predominantly white LAPD force saw itself as guardians of a “thin blue line” holding back local crime. But, crucially, Parker also routinely linked the general disorder that police aimed to control with such national issues as civil rights and communism. “The current soft attitude on the part of the public to crime and Civil Rights demonstrations,” Parker told the Sherman Oaks Rotary Club, “could lead to a form of anarchy unless halted.” So police monitored civil rights activists as if they were dangerous threats to the city’s social order.

The department’s aggression was felt most acutely in the city’s communities of color. As the Los Angeles NAACP charged in 1962, the “police use fear, not respect, to influence conduct” in the black community. This mistreatment included using stop-and-frisk tactics and employing aggressive and excessive force. And the department was unaccountable to the residents it served. In 1965, for example, the department received 231 complaints about the use of excessive force but upheld only 12, or 5.2 percent of them.

Such practices, policies and patterns led to conditions that produced anti-police protests, most notably during the six days in August 1965 when the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles erupted.

But Parker responded to such protests by emphasizing this policing strategy. When the McCone Commission was established by Gov. Pat Brown (D) to investigate the causes and propose solutions to the uprising, Parker increased his attacks on civil rights activists and anyone who dared speak out against the department. Criticism of the police, he argued, undermined faith in the police and public safety. Parker denounced the charges as a “terribly vicious canard which is used to conceal Negro criminality … to try to find someone else to blame for their crimes.”

The McCone Commission accepted Parker’s analysis of the uprising as the work of lawless criminals. As a result, the commission made only limited recommendations for change. But it did propose that the LAPD change its recruitment practices and diversify the department as a means to reduce the tension with the city’s African American residents.

But by 1978, the department was still more than 80 percent white and officer-involved shootings and the use of deadly force continued to disproportionately affect the lives of black and Latino residents. Between 1974 and the first half of 1979, LAPD officers shot 584 suspects — more than half of them black.

Slowly, in response to several lawsuits and affirmative action plans, the LAPD diversified. By 1990, the department had dropped to being only 63 percent white, while 13 percent of its officers were black and 20 percent Latino. Those numbers showed progress but remained far from representative in a city that was 37 percent white, 13 percent black, 40 percent Latino and 9 percent Asian American. The percentage of female officers increased from a minuscule 2.6 percent in 1980 to 12.2 percent in 1990. Despite personnel changes, the department’s culture continued to reflect its more senior and still predominantly white and male officer corps.

Marginal increases in the department’s diversity did not prevent the beating of Rodney King in 1991 or the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion after the officers involved were acquitted. And the LAPD, then under the command of Chief Daryl Gates, a disciple of Parker’s, responded to the unrest in the same way it had in 1965, by blaming it on criminals, gang members and hoodlums. While Gates retired in 1992, the LAPD’s conservative culture persisted, as evidenced by rumors of officer Mark Fuhrman’s collection of Nazi memorabilia, which surfaced during the O.J. Simpson trial.

Over the past two decades, changes in the department — notably limiting the chief of police to two five-year terms and a consent decree requiring federal oversight — have targeted some egregious practices of misconduct, such as planting evidence to frame suspects and covering up police shootings. But the LAPD’s modern police culture was undeniably formed by and continues to be shaped by Chief Parker and his ideas about the role of the police as the “thin blue line” maintaining law and order at all costs. Today, the use of big-data and predictive policing lead to racially discriminatory outcomes and the overpolicing of the city’s most vulnerable communities.

The LAPD’s history is rooted in deep commitments to conservative, law-and-order politics that led to the marginalization and criminalization of the city’s communities of color. So the news that the department was recruiting on Breitbart, which shares that commitment to conservative, anti-black politics — the site once hosted a section on “black crime” — came as no surprise. While the LAPD’s recruitment ad on Breitbart may have been the work of an algorithm, it certainly fits the mold of the LAPD’s longer history. And while pulling those ads was a good start, for the culture of the LAPD to change, for it to no longer be a place that would even dream of advertising with Breitbart, it needs to be open to criticism and truly listen to community organizations to reshape its ideas about policing. Embracing community-led and -controlled policing initiatives and rethinking the very nature of policing in Los Angeles is long overdue.