I learn a bit of Los Angeles political history

Lunch today with a very smart 27-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department. He finally explained to me why LA is so grossly underpoliced (less than half cops-per-capita ratio of NY, and even lower relatively on cops-per-square-mile or cops-per-crime) and why even with a popular police chief and the strong backing of a newly-elected mayor the proposal for a modest increase in the size of the force was a non-starter in the City Council.

Quick answer: It’s mostly Jack Webb’s fault. Dragnet was a brilliant PR coup for the LAPD. (A point not lost on the Department, which gave Webb all the support he asked for.) As a result, during the 50s the force got everything it wanted from the city, including a senior officer and several patrolmen in each division (precinct) assigned to “community affairs,” which mostly meant politics. With that local-level organization and the extensive files on politicians collected by the LAPD Intelligence Unit, plus the racial fears of LA’s white population in the face of African-American and Latino in-migration, the Department became the single most powerful political force in the city.

That led to a decision by the elected politicians to “starve the beast” as a way of curbing its political power. The prolonged struggle between Mayor Tom Bradley (himself an LAPD alumnus) and Chief Daryl Gates — again with heavy racial overtones, but now in a city where English-surnamed whites were becoming a minority — reinforced the idea that money given to the LAPD was money contributed to right-wing political causes.

Basically, then, this was a replay of what happened to the British Army after the virtual military dictatorship of the Commonwealth.

Two questions, one local and one national:

1. Given this diagnosis, is there anyting Bratton can do to turn the situation around? In most of the country, policing is not now regarded as an issue with a left-right valence, or, if it has one, it’s that he “liberal” position is in favor of more spending on what is, after all, a domestic program whose primary beneficiaries are the poor. Clinton spent money to put more cops on the street, and Bush has eliminated that money. Would it help Bratton to explicitly acknowledge the previous problem and to point out (what is surely true) that the LAPD is no longer a reactionary political force and that the groups that suffered from LAPDs excesses in the past are precisely those with the most to gain from a larger force today?

2. Is the current leadership of the military and the defense industry sufficiently worried about suffering a similar fate if they get too closely entwined with the political right? There is no longer any reason to expect that, on average, US interventions abroad will serve conservative rather than liberal goals, so there is no longer any reason for liberals to support less defense spending than conservatives do. Liberals’ desire to have more money left for domestic programs poses no greater conflict with defense spending than conservatives’ desire to keep cutting taxes. John Kerry is demanding, for example, a larger army. Making the Pentagon once again non-partisan in fact as well as in name would obviously be good for the Democrats, but it would be equally good for the Pentagon.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com