The LAPD and Modern Policing

There has been a lot of concern recently over the militarization of police forces. It started with the LAPD.

The founder of the modern Los Angeles police force was William Parker. Taking over after a series of scandals, Parker made the force a national model. Unlike many big city police forces, in LA officers got hired on the basis of merit, not because of political influence. Corruption was out. Policemen were also trim and fit, which was still often an anomaly. As late as the 1990s I saw many officers in Chicago and New York with vast bulges, folks who could not run down a suspect and would have to either resort to deadly force with a firearm, or else give up the chase. He created one of the first Research and Planning Departments to map crime patterns, and established a hi-tech force mobile in squad cars, to maximize use of resources.

But Parker also pioneered in another way, using the military as a model. There is no full length biography of Parker, so sources are fragmentary. One account claims that during the war he was involved with setting up police forces in occupied areas of Germany, and this may have influenced him when he got back to Los Angeles afterwards. One historian, writing about Parker's mania for pedestrian control -- the LAPD was notorious for issuing tickets for jay walking -- noted that life in the streets "was like basic training in the army... Bill Parker and his successors would send the troops out like an elite, mobile army of occupation." Former NYPD lieutenant turned criminology professor James Fyfe wrote, "If you had gone to an LAPD roll call, what you would have seen was how much the LAPD defined policy in military terms. Everything was discussed as military operations and tactics, as opposed to human relations."

There are several manifestations of this approach. The LAPD maintains the largest air force of any police department in the world. Even more tellingly, it pioneered the concept of a Special Weapons and Tactics team, or SWAT. Originally informal, it developed in response to the Watts riot of 1965. Pat McKinley, who went on to become chief of police in Fullerton, told how, "We would send out these Teletypes to tell guys we had a training day coming up and it used to end with, 'Bring your lunch'. That meant bring your rifle." Some of this training was under the auspices of the U.S. Marine Corps, but they also practiced moving through the storm drains to take or outflank an objective, tactics originated during the siege of Stalingrad in World War II. McKinley explained, "The idea was that if we lost part of the city we could come at it through the storm drains." "Winning" or "losing" a city speaks to military objectives, rather than goals for civilian policing.

In recent years, the federal government has enabled smaller police departments all over the U.S. to emulate the Los Angeles model. After 9/11 the nation sought to buttress local anti-terrorism capability by providing equipment and resources. But only a few such locations -- major cities like Los Angeles and New York -- were seriously threatened. In a bid for wider political support, however, supplies went to smaller jurisdictions all over the country, equipping them with tools far in advance of any reasonable expectation of danger in their area.

It is long since time for reform. Congress needs to pass laws that put conditions on any grants to local law enforcement. These should include clear guidelines for when these tools should -- and should not -- be used. Even more, any grant must include funds for and mandate training in proper use of these devices. Until these moves are in place, we may be facing many more Fergusons.