This week in 1992, riots raged across Los Angeles following the acquittal of four white police officers in the brutal beating of a black taxi driver, Rodney King. The country continues to wrestle with questions about policing, race, and justice today. Unfortunately, a hundred days into his administration, President Trump is proving dangerously unable to navigate these complex issues.
Trump’s approach has been one-dimensional. He has promised a return to “law and order,” a rallying cry borrowed from Richard Nixon. In its Trumpian iteration, law and order means an unprecedented crackdown on immigrants, including domestic violence victims seeking protective orders at courthouses. It’s also likely to involve a resurgence of the drug war, a rise in mandatory minimum sentencing, and a boom in our already world-leading incarceration rate. That is, precisely the criminal justice policies that have destroyed trust between police and communities of color.
At the same time, the Trump administration has tried to minimize the need for reform in policing. Attorney General Jeff Sessions describes abusive policing as the work of a few bad actors. He tried to prevent the entry of a consent decree in Baltimore, over the city’s objection, and he is questioning all similar cases on DOJ’s docket. With no evidence to speak of, he has claimed that federal oversight “will cost more lives by handcuffing the police instead of the criminals.” These steps reflect his commitment to “pull back” from investigating police departments for systemic misconduct — work that Congress specifically authorized in 1994 after holding hearings on Mr. King’s assault.
In short, it appears the administration plans to ignore the legitimate grievances of millions of Americans — grievances about excessive force, racial profiling, and everyday disrespect that have echoed throughout American history.
We permit this at our peril. Americans have seen how unlawful policing, coupled with years of economic exclusion and discrimination, alienates people from their government. The resentment can be explosive.
Watts in 1965: allegations of police brutality at a roadside stop sparked six days of conflict and turned South Central L.A. into a virtual war zone. Los Angeles in 1992: reaction to the verdict, impossible to reconcile with video seen round the world, left 63 dead and over $1 billion in damage. Ferguson in 2014: after Officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, thousands took to the streets and were met by a Bearcat, tear gas, and sniper scopes. Baltimore in 2015: Freddie Gray’s spinal cord injury in police custody and subsequent death set off unrest punctuated by structure fires and hundreds of arrests.
These are the extreme examples—cautionary tales about what happens when we allow injustice to fester. It should not require an uprising or violence to get government to take community complaints seriously. For over two years now, people have protested tragic deaths at the hands of law enforcement and cried out for change.
The White House, however, has barely registered their concerns. When it does engage, it treats critics as threats. A statement on WhiteHouse.gov condemns the “anti-police atmosphere in America.” It continues, “Our job is not to make life more comfortable for the rioter, the looter, or the violent disrupter.” Although there has been violence in a few instances, the overwhelming majority of protest has been peaceful. But the administration sweeps together the peaceful masses with the violent outliers, even as it insists on individualized assessment of police conduct. The result is a worldview in which any scrutiny of the police is seen as part of a “war on cops.”
That kind of rhetoric is dangerous. It pits communities against law enforcement. It creates an us vs. them mentality that prevents people from seeing each other as fundamentally connected. It undermines public safety. And it corrodes our democracy by saying to millions of people who have found their voices, the federal government doesn’t hear you.
Twenty-five years after the riots, the Los Angeles Police Department wants its community to know that it is listening. Chief Charlie Beck recently wrote that LAPD’s “aggressive, confrontational, and above all, ineffective” policing “alienated the police to the point that, in retrospect, the riot was inevitable.” He lauded the federal consent decree that helped reduce use of force and improve the public’s view of his department. He declared that “serving the Constitution by protecting the rights of individuals is the ultimate goal of policing.”
This couldn’t be further from President Trump’s approach in his first 100 days. For the safety and peace of our communities, we can only hope that he adopts the lessons shared by Chief Beck, rather than waiting for tragedy to strike yet again.
Follow Chiraag on Twitter: @chiraagbains