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

The protests across the country in response to the police killing of George Floyd have led to significant pressure on mayors and city councils. One of the most important demands has been for the defunding of police departments.

Activists in Minneapolis succeeded in getting the University of Minnesota and the public school system to cancel contracts they had with the Minneapolis Police Department. Even members of the Minneapolis City Council took a stand, pledging to dismantle the city’s police force.

Notably, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti also proposed cutting the Los Angeles Police Department’s (LAPD) $1.8 billion budget by up to $150 million, with some discussions of reallocating up to $250 million of the department’s budget. Such funds would be redirected to health and education initiatives in the city’s Black community along with other communities of color. Pressure to defund the police has led policymakers in at least 16 cities across the country to consider proposals to divest from the police. In Denver, for instance, the school board voted unanimously to remove police from schools by 2021.

Although Garcetti’s proposal to reduce the LAPD budget is a far cry from what activists say is needed to produce systemic change, defunding the police is a crucial non-reformist reform that leads towards dismantling the police power in U.S. cities. Unsurprisingly, calls for defunding the police have faced swift backlash from police officers and police unions. These responses rely on a tactic that police have used over decades to expand their power and authority in the face of challenges from activists: The image of the embattled police officer as the victim in need of more support, and authority to combat crime and unrest.

The response to Garcetti’s proposals was predictable. “We’re not letting this happen to these officers,” Sgt. Jeretta Sanchez, vice president of the Los Angeles police union, said. “It’s not right. First of all, civilians are going on furlough because you didn’t have money, now you’re finding the money to give $250 million to Black Lives Matter?”

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.

The False Claim of the Police as an “Oppressed Minority”

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.

Nowhere did the police portray themselves as under attack more than after the 1965 Watts uprising. In response, police officials employed images of Black rioters to urge residents to come to the department’s aid. In the week after the uprising, Parker told Newsweek, “We had better give the police the support they deserve or next time this happens, they will move in and sack the whole city.” Describing the police as “hapless” and in need of support deflected attention from the real source of the unrest: racist policing and treatment of the city’s African American community.

Rather than addressing the deep-seated grievances with the police, the McCone Commission, the group set up to investigate the causes of the unrest, fell in line behind Parker and called for the need to defend the police from attack. “If police authority is destroyed all of society will suffer because groups would feel free to disobey the law and inevitably their number would increase,” the report said. “Chaos might easily result.”

Such description of the police as the real victim of protest — rather than the source of violence — led to outpourings of support. Then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, for example, played on growing panics of crime and the embattled police officer. In a speech to the 1969 graduating class at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Reagan called for support of the officer in blue in order to preserve a free society. “Between us and the jungle holding it back is the man with the badge,” Reagan stated. “It is a proud heritage—civilization is in your debt.” Yet, Reagan emphasized, “too often the only thanks (the policeman) gets is a charge of ‘police brutality.’” Such criticism of the men in blue, Reagan believed, should not be tolerated.

In response to the combination of liberal court decisions, civil rights activism and claims of police brutality, law and order politicians escalated their portrayals of police as victims. In 1970, LAPD Chief Ed Davis summarized, “There is no doubt in my mind that there is a conspiracy to eliminate the police.”

By mobilizing the image of the embattled police officer, LAPD officials effectively consolidated their position of power and authority. In the following decades, the LAPD became a powerful partisan entity in the city with more authority and resources to combat crime. The department formed specialized units, such as SWAT teams, and expanded its ability to police youth of color through a strengthened juvenile legal system. During the 1980s, the department employed dragnet sweeps to indiscriminately arrest youth of color and mobilized its SWAT units to conduct militarized drug raids.

Budgets and the number of officers also increased. In 1962, for instance, the LAPD’s total operating cost was $70.8 million, or just under 28 percent of the city budget. By 1982, in contrast, the LAPD’s total operating cost was $525 million, or about 35 percent of the city budget. Between 1960 and 1990, the LAPD increased from a force of 5,200 to 8,414 officers, a per capita increase from 2.1 to 2.4 officers per 1,000 residents. The gospel of growing the LAPD both monetarily and in numbers continued through the 1990s and 2000s as the LAPD reached 10,000 officers for the first time in its history.

That police union officials have reacted so swiftly to calls for defunding the police and raising the specter of the embattled police officer needing public and political support demonstrates that defunding police represents real potential for change. In 2020, police officials across the country recognize the threat these demands pose to their authority and have started to mobilize in response. In Los Angeles, the Police Protective League responded by doubling down on the threat that defunding the police would make the city less safe. The union’s vice president stated, “Cutting $150 million from the LAPD budget is a reckless political overreaction that will make Los Angeles neighborhoods less safe…. Cutting police officers will increase response times in 911 emergencies and will decimate our ability to investigate both property and violent crime.” In New York, Mike O’Meara, the president of the New York Police Benevolent Association, defended the police using the police-as-victim trope, claiming politicians and the media had unfairly attacked the police. “Our legislators are failing us. Our press is vilifying us,” he said. “Stop treating us like animals and thugs and start treating us with some respect…. We’ve been vilified. It’s disgusting.”

Defunding the police is a critical step, but it will not be enough without recognizing how the police will use demands for systemic reform to frame themselves as the “victims” in need of more support and power to maintain so-called law and order.