Segment from Serve & Protect?

Anything But A Cop

Guest Rev. Thabiti Anyabwile tells the hosts why, when he was young, his mother told him he grow up to be anything – except a police officer.

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BRIAN: This is BackStory. In 1967, Senator Fred Harris asked African Americans in a handful of northern cities how things were going between them and their white neighbors.

MALE SPEAKER: Things were so segregated in these cities that they didn’t see any white people at all, except the police.

BRIAN: How much police represent the communities they’re serving has long been a sensitive issue. It’s part of the reason, in fact, that Americans were slow to create police departments in the first place. But in the 1840s, authorities decided that a standing police force was better than the alternative.

MALE SPEAKER: At one point, they were actually firing cannon at each other down the streets of Philadelphia.

BRIAN: Today on the show, the police and the policed, from a time when politicians exchanged police jobs for votes to the era of autonomous cops that were too shielded from oversight.

MALE SPEAKER: In the middle of the night, people started being dragged out of their beds.

BRIAN: A history of the police.

MALE SPEAKER: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

BRIAN: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory with the American Backstory hosts.

PETER: Welcome to the show. I’m Peter Onuf here with Brian Balogh.

BRIAN: Hey there, Peter.

PETER: [INAUDIBLE] Ed Ayers. Hey, we spoke this week to a pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. His name is Thabiti Anyab– I’ve got going to say this right now.


PETER: Anyabwile.

THABITI ANYABWILE: Nobody calls me that, by the way. So at best, I’m past Thabiti. And lots of folks will just call me Pastor T.

PETER: When he was growing up in Lexington, North Carolina, in the 1970s, Pastor T used to daydream about what he was going to be when he grew up.

THABITI ANYABWILE: And my mom would pretty much always say, you can be anything you want to be in the world, including President of the United States. And I don’t know that I believed the president bit.

PETER: Oh, why not!

THABITI ANYABWILE: And so one day, one morning, I said to my mother, I want to be a police officer! And my mother’s face turned to marble, and she looked at me, and her voice dropped a couple of octaves, and she said, you will not be a police officer! And I was taken aback. And I asked why. And her comment to me was, I will not have you locking up our people. And that was the end of the conversation, and the end of any day dreaming about becoming a police officer. And of course, what she was beginning to introduce me to was a long narrative, a long history, of tension, conflict, mistrust, mistreatment between the police and African American communities.

PETER: That history was, in part, a family history. A generation earlier, Pastor T’s grandfather came home from World War II only to be greeted by a throng of clan members.

THABITI ANYABWILE: When stories were told of cross burnings and things of that sort, part of that story would be not just that the Klan burned a cross or rode through at night, but part of that story would be that you didn’t get any support from the police officers, or in fact many of the police officers were themselves Klansmen.

PETER: But that reflexive mistrust of police officers is not simply a product of family lore. These types of stories have been told by countless African Americans going back many, many generations.

THABITI ANYABWILE: If we look at the longer history of African American engagement with police forces in this country, whether that police force is returning runaway slaves, or whether that police force is enforcing segregation, one could understand the African American sojourn here as in part living in a police state.

PETER: Pastor T has children of his own now, two teenage girls and a seven-year-old son. And so we couldn’t help asking him what he would say to his own kids now if they told him they wanted to become cops. Would he discourage them, as his mother had discouraged him?

THABITI ANYABWILE: That’s a really good question. No, I don’t think I would tell them that. I don’t think I would pass on my mother’s counsel. We can’t ever hope for our institutions to continue to grow and to get better unless we send good people into them. I think the calling to be a police officer is as much a calling as is the calling to be a pastor. They are as much servants of God. And so I don’t think I would discourage him from that, if that’s what he felt like he wanted to give his life, too. I think I’d do my best to encourage him and help him to be wise in that.

BRIAN: On August 9, an unarmed black teenager was shot dead by a white police officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. The shooting of Michael Brown touched off mass protests that were met with a startling show of force by the Ferguson police.

The circumstances of the shooting are still not clear. But regardless of what’s still to come, the events of last month highlighted, once again, the deep mistrust of police that many Americans had been living with for years. So today on the show, we’re taking on this history of mistrust with an hour on the relationship between police and the communities they serve. We’ve got the story of how efforts to clean up corruption in the LAPD ended up putting cops above the law. We’ll hear what happened when a group of senators told the nation that police were to blame for riots in the 1960s. And we’ll look at the reasons police departments were created in the first place. A hint– it wasn’t to fight crime.

Over the past few weeks, Ferguson has come to stand in for a problem afflicting towns and cities around the country, namely the stark racial disparity between police and the people they’re policing. Ferguson is a town that’s 67% African American, but only 4 of its 53 police officers are black. There are a lot of explanations for this disparity, but what’s clear is that it represents a real departure from the way minority groups used to move through the ranks of urban police. For immigrants in the 19th century, it basically amounted to a patronage system. You give me a job on the police force, and in exchange, I help turn out my fellow countrymen to vote for you in the next election. And I do that again and again if you need it.

MALE SPEAKER: If you’re talking about the Irish of the 1840s, they are displacing over time a German immigrant of an earlier generation.

BRIAN: This is historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad.

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: If you’re talking about Southern Italians of the 1890s and the turn of the 20th century, they’re vying for spots against a very entrenched Irish immigrant and Irish American police force. So depending on where you are in your American journey depends on how quickly one can ascend to the ranks of the men in blue.

BRIAN: It was in this way that a succession of immigrant groups, groups that at first were thought of as being especially prone to criminality, effectively shed that reputation, moving into positions of political and economic power eventually.

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: Those uniforms represented an arrival, so to speak, for the community of being fully incorporated or Americanized or even assimilated to this country. They were able to essentially decriminalize their own community by virtue of both representing law and order when necessary but also demonstrating that the state itself cared about them and the social contract.

BRIAN: What happens when African Americans begin moving north in large numbers? Let’s say during World War I or served during World War II, did they have those same opportunities to become police officers?

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: They did, over time, but their options were far fewer, meaning that the number of slots on any given police force, New York City, for example, had a very small number. In fact, so small a number in the beginning, single digits. And these were truly token opportunities. More interestingly, they were usually attached to the increasing presence of African Americans or Caribbean immigrants in particular neighborhoods. So if you look across the country at the turn of the 20th century, or even in the great migration period in the north, you’ll see that most black officers are only policing the black community, which also further limited their options.

To a degree, that was true for other European immigrants, as well. But those barriers to policing beyond the ethnic ghetto fell much quicker than they did for the black one.


KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: Well, because black police officers outside of the south in particular, it was not socially acceptable for them to police white communities. So regardless of their rank or title, they were generally restricted to only policing the black community.

BRIAN: But in those instances where African Americans were police officers in their own communities, did that alchemy work in a similar fashion?

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: It didn’t work because black people were only policing black people. But going back to the mixed communities of European immigrants, if you’re an Italian American or an Italian immigrant and you’re in a heterogeneous population of Irish and Jews and Polish Catholics and others, whatever stigma was attached to your particular subgroup eventually sheds because people get to know you as Officer Kelly, or I like to joke, Officer Giuliani. So this is the Irish and the Italian book end to the process of not seeing the particular European nationality as particularly threatening. Not for nothing, Ray Kelly represents a tradition of Irish Americans, a former commissioner of police here, and Rudolph Giuliani represents a tradition as a chief law enforcement officer, as a former federal attorney, of Italian American succession.

But outside of the south and across the north and west of this country, you still have never had a heyday of ethnic succession following black people into our police forces. They are, to this day, overwhelmingly white even though in our inner cities, in our urban communities, the population is not nearly as white as are the police forces.

BRIAN: I want to drill down into that, Khalil. I was listening to cable news. I don’t even remember which channel. And I heard a pundit talk about there not being black police officers in Ferguson because there wasn’t a tradition of policing in the black community. How would you respond to that fellow?

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: I think when we talk about tradition, we can document with great evidence tremendous optimism and interest in participating in all forms of civil society, including policing, and that these were always perceived to be jobs for people who had good hearts and were committed to their own upward mobility. And so African Americans have always pursued these jobs commensurate with their own American dream aspirations.

And it’s only in the midst of the last 30 or 40 years, in the wake of the great disappointments of economic and social mobility since the civil rights movement, that we can introduce this variable of community distrust of policing. It’s not to say that after Americans didn’t distrust policing at the turn of the 20th century. But they did so far less today because they could imagine a world without segregation prior to the civil rights movement. The problem you have now is we live in a post-civil rights moment and it’s really kind of hard to imagine what does America look like without this new form of Jim Crow, as Michelle Alexander frames it?

So all I’m suggesting is that perhaps there is something to be said about less enthusiasm among 15 and 17-year-olds for joining police forces given policies like stop and frisk. But that’s not representative of a tradition. That’s representative of the contemporary realities of discriminatory and abusive policing in black communities.

BRIAN: Khalil Gibran Muhammad is the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. He’s the author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America.

PETER: It’s time for a quick break. But stick around. When we get back, mob rule in the streets of Philadelphia. The police were nowhere to be found because they hadn’t even been invented yet.

BRIAN: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.

PETER: We’re back with BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf.

BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.

ED AYERS: And I’m Ed Ayers. Today on the show, the history of police and the policed in America.

BRIAN: Let’s consider a time not so long ago when there was no such thing as “the police” in America. Crime was kept in check by a hodge-podge of constables, sheriffs, urban night watches, and most importantly, snoopy neighbors. But it wasn’t an increase in crime that led to the development of the first police forces. It was civil unrest.

PETER: In the years following the American Revolution, protest by men in the lower echelons of society were a standard feature of the social landscape. Elites tolerated them, sort of the way you’d tolerate bad weather. The Boston Tea Party, after all, was still pretty fresh in people’s memories. Protests still had a patriotic and democratic ring to them.

BRIAN: But in the late 1830s, the nation’s steadily growing economy went bust, more bust than it had ever gone before. It was America’s first great depression. Suddenly, protests by people in the poorer classes took on a different, more threatening cast. And in Philadelphia in 1844, those protests boiled over into bloodshed.

ALLISTER ROBERTS: Well, it was essentially a tension between Catholics and Protestants, immigrants and native born Americans.

PETER: This is Allister Roberts, a law professor at Suffolk University.

ALLISTER ROBERTS: And that tension, I suppose, was always in the background. But it was managed in economic good times. But when the economy went south, everything began to deteriorate very badly and turned into a full scale conflict that the authorities tried to intervene and put down. And eventually, they did. The city was eventually put under martial law.

PETER: Well, tell us a little bit about what kind of capacity for maintaining order a city like Philadelphia would have had at that time.

ALLISTER ROBERTS: It would have been primitive. There was no such thing as a municipal police force in the modern sense in any major American city at the time. And so essentially, if a riot got out of hand, a sheriff might try to put together a posse. But that was tough to do. And then, if things got really out of hand, you would call in the army or cavalry to put things down.

PETER: Right. So in effect, there’s a kind of a war going on in Philadelphia, or at least that’s the way frightened officials are seeing it?

ALLISTER ROBERTS: Well, that’s precisely what was happening at the worst moments of 1844. The army is called in. They’re bringing in artillery. They’re bringing in cavalry. The rioters themselves are bringing up cannon from the ships in the port. And at one point, they’re actually firing cannon at each other down the streets of Philadelphia. And one of the upshots was that Philadelphia began to realize there had to be a better way of maintaining order in the city. And a lot of other American cities watching Philadelphia or dealing with their own protests began to realize that they needed to find a better way to control dissent as well.

PETER: Yeah, so tell us a little bit about the formation of police departments that seemed to set a precedent for our modern understanding of what police do.

ALLISTER ROBERTS: Well actually, Britain in the 1820s and 1830s had been going through a roughly similar phenomenon. Industrialization was going full speed. A lot of unrest among people who were losing their jobs because of the introduction of new techniques or losing their jobs because of periodic economic crashes. So London, the London authorities in the mid 1830s establish the first police force. And interestingly, they don’t do it to control crime. They’re doing it to maintain public order, to control protests.

The American municipal authorities basically say, OK, we’re going to take a page from the British here. We’re going to establish a municipal police force, a civic army, as it were. And we’re going to use that in place of the military to anticipate unrest and maintain order.

PETER: So why was this expedient of turning to a professionalized, civic army? Why was that such a momentous turn in the history of policing? We sort of take for granted now. Our police are in uniforms. They’re well-armed, maybe too well-armed. But that would have seemed to many American observers in the early 19th century to be a violation of fundamental American principles.

ALLISTER ROBERTS: Right. As you say, the phrase they were using at the time was a civic army. We need to build a civic army, as opposed to the conventional army. And there’d been a lot of resistance to that for a combination of practical and ideological reasons. The first was it seemed like a very anti-democratic thing to do.

PETER: Right, right.

ALLISTER ROBERTS: Here is a country that’s just freed itself from the empire. It’s committed to the notion of self-rule. And to some degree, the idea is you don’t need a police force to discipline the people because the people ought to be able to discipline themselves. The critical point is that, I think, in the earliest phases, there was a certain degree of elite sympathy for what mobs were doing. And of course, by the 1830s, 1840s, the tone is beginning to change.

PETER: Yeah, the story you tell is one of increasing capacity of police authorities to maintain order. Could give us the big picture of how that capacity has changed over time? And in some ways, this is a reflection of the changing character of American society generally?

ALLISTER ROBERTS: Well, that’s right. So the premise is that the free market economy can be a roller coaster. In good times, no one’s worried about managing disorder. But in bad times, things can go very bad. And government has to develop the capability for dealing with unrest. And they do it in a couple of different ways. They expand their policing capabilities. They improve their doctrines on how to deal with unrest. They upgrade their equipment. They tighten the law about the time, place, and manner in which protests can happen. They even start to redesign urban space in such a way that it’s easier to control unrest when it does break out.

And this is a recurrent phenomenon. So if you thought that the great thing about the free market is that it can basically operate itself, the answer is, that’s not right.

PETER: No, not exactly.

ALLISTER ROBERTS: And one of the ways in which that’s not right is that you have to have the policing capabilities to deal with the unrest that will inevitably come during slumps in a free market economy.

PETER: Allister Roberts is a law professor at Suffolk University in Boston. His forthcoming book is The End of Protest: How Free Market Capitalism Learned to Control Dissent.

BRIAN: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. And we’re talking about the history of police-community relations in America. So Ed, Peter, let’s get back to Ferguson, the story we talked about at the top of the show, and talk about what’s going on there today. As I understand it, police now are wearing cameras. And the idea in Ferguson, and a lot of other places that are beginning to adopt this, is that the public will be protected from the excesses of police by this video record. But the police will be better off because they’ll be really innoculated against spurious charges from the public.

Well, all of this got me thinking about the use of technology in policing in general. I mean, in many ways, you could write the history of policing through technological breakthroughs.

And at least in the 20th century, all those breakthroughs claimed to make the police a lot more accountable. I’ll just throw one at you, the two-way radio. Little, innocuous thing that we take for granted today. But really, well into the middle of the 20th century, police officers were very much on their own. And that meant that they really cut their own deals with the communities that they lived in. That led to a lot of corruption. But the two-way radio allowed central command to know where police officers were, to use the police as a city-wide force rather than having to depend on the independent judgment of 200 or 300 individual police officers, making them more accountable to the larger objectives of the police force.

ED: So Brian, when was that?

BRIAN: Well, like all technology, you can market by the first time it was used, in the 1930s, in Boston, or by when it became really prevalent, which in many ways was not until the 1960s and 1970s, even in larger cities. Speaking of time, Ed, why don’t we put Peter on the spot and find out how technology was used in policing back in the early days of the republic? Did they have technology in ye olde days, Peter?

PETER: Well, Brian, let me tell you. This accountability business cuts two ways. In some ways, what you’re describing, making the police more responsive to central authority, well, that makes the police more like the military, it seems to me. That makes the police on the beat part of an organized force, thinking of the police collectively and able to deploy that force. And when the police emerge in America, it’s in opposition to a tradition of community self-governance. It’s in opposition to day watch and night watch of people who are patrolling the neighborhoods who are members of the neighborhood and aren’t responsible for anybody except in the kind of ad hoc way in which any republican citizen’s responsible for the public good.

And when you talk about people in uniforms, you talk about people who are following the command of a central authority. You’re talking about a standing army or, as they called it in the antebellum decades in the 40s and the 50s, a civic army. That is now not part of the neighborhood, not part of the city.

ED: So Peter, what you’re saying is that the technology is the police itself.

PETER: Yeah, you’re right, Ed.

ED: Right, it’s a uniform. It’s a bureaucracy. It’s an identity distinct from the people that it’s actually policing.

PETER: Yeah, it’s like a machine. The individual policemen are not autonomous, self-acting individuals.

ED: Yeah, they’re interchangeable parts.

PETER: You’ve got it.

BRIAN: So Peter, let’s put Ed on the spot and talk about those machines. And I mean real machines, not human technology, even though Ed makes a great point there. Ed, what kind of technology changed the relationship between police and those policed in the 19th century?

ED: Once you get the civic army that Peter talked about in place, it’s a natural inclination for them to adopt all kinds of technology. And so the 19th century just sees the adoption of one new kind of machine after another. Guns in the 1850s begin to spread, but also photography, which as you could imagine is a lot better than some sketch or a verbal description of somebody. And then during the Civil War, handcuffs, 1862. And then 1877, telegraph.

BRIAN: Hold on, hold on, how did they use the telegraph in policing?

ED: Well, before you have a telegraph, telephone, or a radio, if you’re a criminal, just skipping town is a pretty effective strategy. There’s nobody that’s going to be able to catch you somewhere else. And so you would see in newspapers a report, police received a telegraph today that suspicious characters are coming down the river from Memphis to Natchez or whatever. Stay on the lookout. And around the turn of the century, they come up with an especially important technology that’s especially suited to this work, and that’s the fingerprint.

And once you start having fingerprints, you’re being able to scrutinize, surveil things that you can’t even see. It strikes me that this is a real watershed in the way that police operate.

BRIAN: Ed, I think you’ve put your finger on it.

ED: Ah.

BRIAN: We started with cameras and how they might hold the police accountable. And you’ve now ended with fingerprints and how the police are surveilling us down to our literal fingerprints, and that will turn into DNA. And so with this two-way relationship, technology being used to hold the police accountable on the one hand but to surveil us on the other, where do you guys come down on the current situation with cameras?

PETER: Seems to me that we’ve come back to the early period in which we have total surveillance all the time. There are no secrets. Everything’s transparent. The real tension today, it seems to me, is in our notion of rights, privacy rights, not to be seen. And if we have total transparency on both sides, well, maybe that’ll stop road cops from misbehaving. But what happens to us? What happens to the kinds of rights and personal liberties that we cherish when we are always exposed?

BRIAN: Peter, you raise such a fundamental point. But I would say in instances where individuals carry the power to make life or death decisions in a split second, as police officers do, then surveillance of them and giving up a little of our privacy in the process is well worth it.

PETER: Yeah. And I think too, Brian, we shouldn’t discount the rights of the community to safety, to predictability, and the rights of the community to make sure that its agents, the people it pays to serve in maintaining social order, don’t abuse that power. So we as citizens want that kind of surveillance of those who conduct surveillance. That’s checks and balances. That’s fundamental to our system.

BRIAN: It’s time for another break. When we get back, a white senator from Oklahoma spends a day at a Milwaukee barber shop and gets schooled about the police. More BackStory, coming up in a minute.

ED: We’re back with BackStory, the show that looks to the past to understand the America of today. I’m Ed Ayers.

BRIAN: I’m Brian Balogh.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. Today on the show, we’re looking at the history of mistrust between police and the communities they serve.

ED: In the early decades of the 20th century, the Los Angeles Police Department was known as one of the most corrupt in the nation. Cops there operated at the behest of underworld mobsters, political bosses, and of the Chamber of Commerce, who used the force to break up unions and other so-called subversive organizations. The city really did look like something out of a noir film. In the four years between 1919 and 1923, eight police chiefs came and went, all taken down by scandals. It was a pattern that continued into the 1940s.

PETER: But in 1950, a new police chief came to power. And he was determined to clean the place up. Our producer, Nina Earnest, has the story.

MALE SPEAKER: Each week at this point in our program, “On the Beat,” we bring to our microphone a special guest. Tonight, we are especially proud to present the new chief executive of the Los Angeles Police Department, chief of police William H. Parker.

JOHN BUNTIN: He was an intimidating, cold SOB.

NINA EARNEST: This is John Buntin, who wrote a biography of Parker. Consider this. One of Parker’s former speech writers, Gene Roddenberry, went on to create a little show called Star Trek. And it turns out that steely Dr. Spock is, in part, based on Parker.

JOHN BUNTIN: But envision a Spock who was also an alcoholic. Cerebral, cold, intense, formidable.

NINA EARNEST: Vulcan tendencies aside, Parker was seen as an upstanding cop. He was a war hero and veteran officer who developed the department’s first Bureau of Internal Affairs, investigating all manner of police misconduct.

EDWARD ESCOBAR: He had the reputation of being incorruptible.

NINA EARNEST: This is historian Edward Escobar.

EDWARD ESCOBAR: And of having very precise ideas of how policing should work. And those precise ideas were around the issue of professionalism.

NINA EARNEST: Police professionalism didn’t begin with Parker, but he was a standout warrior for the cause. Beginning in the 1920s, reformers came to believe that the way to root out corrupt cops was to treat policing like a profession, as something respectable. So in Parker’s mind, fighting crime required just as much expertise as becoming a lawyer or a doctor.

EDWARD ESCOBAR: And Parker and the police professionalism movement believed that they needed to be the sole arbiters of who became a police officer and who should discipline police officers if they stepped out of bounds.

NINA EARNEST: To stop corruption in the force, Parker had to make sure that cops and cops alone controlled the department. But there’s more to the story of professionalism in the LAPD than just autonomy.

EDWARD ESCOBAR: One of the ideas of being a professional, say, now let’s turn to medicine for a second, is that you have to have a theory of what causes illness, what causes disease. Well, in the same way, police had to have an idea of what causes crime and then what they should be doing to fight crime.

NINA EARNEST: And in LA, that meant focusing their often violent crime fighting efforts on the city’s Mexican-American community. Theories about minorities being prone to criminality still influence police behavior. By the time Parker took control, the LAPD’s tactics in minority neighborhoods had led to tensions between the cops and the people they policed. Those tactics set the scene for what would become a real threat to Parker’s prized autonomy. It was Christmas Eve, 1951. That night, two officers were called to the Showboat Bar on report of underage drinking.

JOHN BUNTIN: So these two officers show up. There are seven people there. The officers asked for some ID. Five of the seven men were Latinos. Two were Anglos. No one’s a minor. But instead of leaving the scene, the police officers tell several of the guys to disperse.

EDWARD ESCOBAR: Police officers brutally tried to throw them out of the bar. A fight ensued. The seven young men overpowered the police officers and left the scene.

JOHN BUNTIN: And then, in the middle of the night, the police came for them, 4:00 AM in the morning. People started being dragged out of their beds.

NINA EARNEST: That’s when six of the young men were taken into custody at the LAPD Central Division where LA’s finest were having a Christmas party.

EDWARD ESCOBAR: Now, a rumor had spread within the department that the police officers had been badly beaten and that one of them had actually lost an eye.

NINA EARNEST: That wasn’t true. But true or not, the cops wanted revenge. Fueled by anger and copious amounts of alcohol, things got ugly really fast.

EDWARD ESCOBAR: Remember the scene from LA Confidential? That actually happened.

MALE SPEAKER: This is for ours, Poncho.

NINA EARNEST: It’s estimated that around 50 officers took turns severely beating these young men in their cells.

MALE SPEAKER: What are you looking at? What are you looking at!

EDWARD ESCOBAR: You would think that in a professional police department that, when something like that occurred, William H. Parker would know about it immediately and start an investigation of what would happen, and then would go in and discipline the officers for such a breach of discipline. That did not happen.

NINA EARNEST: Instead, the public didn’t hear about the case until March, when the young men went to trial and told their side of the story. The press dubbed the incident “Bloody Christmas.” Rumors spread that the mayor would ask for Parker’s resignation. And the chief suddenly found his department under the scrutiny of a grand jury investigation. Mexican-American groups and others who had long suffered at the hands of the cops fought to bring the officers and Parker to justice. The critics wanted more civilian oversight of the force, and opponents wanted to revoke the section of the city charter that gave the department independence in personnel issues.

JOHN BUNTIN: What Bloody Christmas posed was this problem of brutality and accountability. You have a police chief who wants to free the police department from corruption. Look at Los Angeles’s history. That’s understandable. But at what point do you also free the department from accountability?

NINA EARNEST: Parker fought this threat to autonomy any way he could. He stonewalled the grand jury. He also launched a PR campaign pushing the idea that the police were the thin blue line protecting civilized society from anarchy. And on top of that, Parker had the upper hand in the court of public opinion thanks in part to this.


NINA EARNEST: The wildly popular radio turned television show Dragnet started long before Parker took the helm of the LAPD. But he understood the value of good publicity and maintained a very close working relationship with the show. Listen closely, and you’ll catch Parker’s name in the credits.

MALE SPEAKER: Technical advice comes from the office of chief of police W. H. Parker, Los Angeles Police Department.

JOHN BUNTIN: At the same time the newspapers were putting out this image of the LAPD as a rampaging, brutal, unaccountable organization, people were seeing a very different image of the LAPD. The LAPD as ultra-efficient, bureaucratic machine. And that was a vision that the population of Los Angeles in general was happy to sign off on.

NINA EARNEST: In the end, eight officers were indicted for using excessive force, and five were convicted. That was unprecedented in LA. But Parker kept his job, and no structural changes were made to the police department’s autonomous status. Parker tightened his grip on the department, and under his leadership, the LAPD would go on to become a model professional police force. But now, no one was policing that professional force. And Escobar says that left the city’s minority communities with very few options in the face of continued mistreatment.

EDWARD ESCOBAR: The outcomes were the Watts Riots of 1965. You have an ongoing, simmering conflict between the LAPD and the black and Mexican-American communities throughout the next decades culminating, if you will, with the Rodney King beating of the early 1990s and the subsequent riots. This became sort of a cancer that consumed the department from the inside out.

NINA EARNEST: It wasn’t until the 1999 rampart scandal, involving brutality and the framing of suspects, that authorities said enough was enough. After 50 years, it was time to protect this most professional of organizations from its own criminal elements.

PETER: Nina Earnest is one of our producers. Helping her tell that story was John Buntin and Edward Escobar. Buntin is the author of L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America’s Most Seductive City. Escobar is an historian at Arizona State University. We’ll post his article about Bloody Christmas at

ED: Toward the end of that east, Edward Escobar mentioned the Watts Riots of 1965. They were among the most famous riots that swept inner city America in that period. But they were hardly the only ones. Harlem, Philly, and Rochester in ’64, Chicago in ’66, and the long, hot summer of 1967 that saw 159 riots tear across the United States. The most devastating were in Newark and Detroit.

BRIAN: In five days in Detroit, 43 people were killed, most of them African American civilians. Fred Harris, a young US senator from Oklahoma, pushed for a congressional commission to investigate the causes of the riots and suggest possible solutions.

FRANK HARRIS: And then it occurred to me that the president, President Johnson, could without waiting for legislation appoint such a commission. And that’s what he did.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON: My fellow Americans, I am tonight appointing a special advisory commission on civil disorders.

FRANK HARRIS: And just before he was to go on the air, I was watching it with some friends, watching television, he called me. And he said, Fred, I’m going to appoint that commission you’ve been talking about. And I said, well, I think that’s a good thing to do. He said, I’m going to put you on it.

PRESIDENT JOHNSON: Its other members will include Fred R. Harris, the senator from Oklahoma.

FRANK HARRIS: And I said, well, I hadn’t expected that. But I’ll do the best I can. And he said, another thing, Fred. I said, yes, sir, Mr. President. He said, I want you to remember you’re a Johnson man. He said, if you forget it, I’ll take my pocket knife and cut your blank off. He didn’t say “blank.”

BRIAN: Johnson was warning Harris. The president had a reputation as a civil rights advocate and poverty fighter. And the final report had better reflect that. The commission became known as the Kerner Commission, after the chair, Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois. But it had a more official title.

FRANK HARRIS: The name it was The President’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. And he gave us a charge that involved three questions he wanted us to answer. One was, what happened? Why did it happen? And lastly, what can we do to keep it from happening again and again?

We divided up into teams. I was a team with Mayor John Lindsay of New York. John and I went around the country and visited particular cities where riots had occurred, walked the streets, talked with people. And that gave real substance and put faces on the kinds of things that we heard from the experts.

BRIAN: Harris talked with lots of people, including militants and unemployed 20-somethings. He spent a whole day in a Milwaukee barbershop asking customers about the recent unrest. And for those who had grown up someplace in the deep south, he asked whether they experienced less discrimination up north.

FRANK HARRIS: And people were puzzled. They didn’t know how to respond. It turned out things were so segregated in these cities that living there in Milwaukee in the black section, they didn’t see any white people at all, except the police.

ED: And that gets at one of the Kerner Commission’s key findings, that despite civil rights progress in the early 1960s, America was still deeply segregated. The most famous line of report reads–

FRANK HARRIS: “America’s moving towards two countries, one black, one white, separate and unequal.”

ED: The report pointed to mass unemployment, dismal schools, and substandard housing in African American neighborhoods as longstanding causes of anger and resentment.

FRANK HARRIS: People had a lot of really serious grievances and hostility. And we found that the first level of intensity of grievance was, number one, police practices.

ED: Many people told Harris about being harassed on an almost daily basis by white police officers who lived in other neighborhoods. And residents explained that there was no system for complaining about unfair police practices. And if complaints were made, little or no official action was taken.

FRANK HARRIS: Hostility was so high in all of these black sections of the cities of the country where the riots had occurred that almost any random spark would set them off.

BRIAN: When the riots did flare up, says Harris, the police went overboard in their response. Law enforcement officials justify their use of live ammunition on the grounds that they were under siege by sniper fire.

FRANK HARRIS: And before long, you had the National Guard spraying an apartment building, just spraying it with machine gun fire, because somebody said that’s where the fire was coming from.

BRIAN: The rumors of snipers and outside agitators were fanned by the FBI and related to the President in official reports. They portrayed the riots as part of a huge conspiracy orchestrated by leaders of the Black Panther movement. But the Kerner Commission found no evidence of snipers or of conspiracy. It concluded that segregation, lack of economic opportunity, and hostile police were plenty cause enough.

ED: Identifying the problem as institutional racism was the easy part. But the Kerner Commission also had to make recommendations. And so it called for job creation and integrated housing to break up segregated urban ghettos. As for the police, the commission recommended new hiring practices that would create a more diverse police force accountable to citizen oversight.

FRANK HARRIS: We said that police in a neighborhood ought to look a lot like the people in the neighborhood. They ought to be a part of the neighborhood. And we recommended what can be called community policing, that the police and other services of government ought to be out there in the community, available to people, and be a part of the community. And there ought to be grievance mechanisms before things get bad. There ought to be a way by which people could feel that if they made some complaint about the police or whatever, it would be taken seriously and acted upon.

BRIAN: In its final report, the Kerner Commission did not mince words. Quote, “What white Americans have never fully understood, but what the negro can never forget, is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it. White institutions maintain it. And white society condones it.” End quote. Johnson, the President responsible for the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Economic Opportunity Act just a few years before, didn’t take the report’s accusations well. So I had to ask Harris, did you forget you were a Johnson man?

FRANK HARRIS: Ha! No. You know, a terrible thing happened. We think that one member of the commission leaked the report early. And we know from staff and others that Johnson hadn’t read the report. But he was told that this report’s going to ruin you because it encourages and condones riots. And it doesn’t have a good thing to say about you, about anything you’ve done in regard to civil rights.

All of that was false. We put a fellow to work on the commission staff putting together a citation in the report to every place where we had said something complimentary of President Johnson. And that mess came to seven pages, single spaced. But Johnson never saw that.

BRIAN: Johnson refused to meet with the commissioners, and he denied their request for continued investigations. But the National Association of Chiefs of Police were supportive of the commission’s work. And in the 1970s, community policing programs began to show up in a lot of American cities.

ED: In 1998, 30 years after the report was issued, Harris, now as a professor of political science, co-authored another study. It found that segregation in housing had intensified, and African American unemployment was at crisis levels. The problems haven’t changed since then, says Harris. And so the Kerner Commission’s recommendations are as relevant as ever.

FRANK HARRIS: I think a lot of people thought Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act and the Poverty Program and all that, well, we solved all that. But it is true that poverty is worse now in America than it was, and we are re-segregating. And these grievances are growing up again against the police, and we’re going to see more of this kind of trouble and more of these kinds of terrible tragedies as in Ferguson unless we take interest again. Thomas Jefferson said, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. And it’s also the price of a practicing democracy.

BRIAN: Fred Harris represented Oklahoma in the US Senate from 1964 to 1973. Today, he’s a professor of political science at the University of New Mexico.

PETER: That’s going to do it for us today. But we’ll be waiting for you online. What are the stories about police that have been passed down in your family? Are you a police officer? And if so, have community relations changed over the course of your career? Let us know at We’re also on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter at backstoryradio. Whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

ED: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Tony Field, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, Kelly Jones, Emily Charnok, and Robert [? Armengol. ?] Our digital producer is Emily Gattick, and Jamal Millner is our engineer. We had help from Colie Elhai. Special thanks this week to [? Galphon Raul ?], Ed Davis, Michael Holland, Steve Kurtzman, Arnold Sagolyn, and listener Tammy Lee. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.

BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Weinstein Properties, by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in arts, the humanities, and the environment, and by History Channel, history made every day.

NINA EARNEST: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of history emeritus at UVA and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.