Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?”, the blog that doesn’t let its K9 unit loose.
In this week’s blog, we’ll discuss the recent shootings of unarmed civilians by police in Anaheim, California this past week and the violent protests that followed. We’ll also look at the shake-up in police departments from New Orleans to Seattle. This requires a look into the history of law enforcement, focusing on the still tempestuous relationship between police and minority groups in these areas.
On July 21, Anaheim police officers approached 3 men in an alley who were, “acting suspiciously.” The men fled the scene, but the police were able to track down one of the men, Manuel Angel Díaz, to his apartment complex where an officer shot and killed the unarmed Díaz. His shooting prompted several protests over the next few days in the Orange County suburb, and unfortunately more violence. On the following day in an unrelated incident, another man who allegedly shot at the police during a car chase was also killed by officers.
Protesters confronted police and officers resorted to firing pepper balls, rubber bullets and bean bags at the group who appeared to have women and children with them. In the ensuing scrum, a K9 police dog got loose from his officer and charged a couple of men, injuring them.
The police have responded that their pursuit of Díaz was carried out because of his membership in a gang (and possible drug possession) and that their crowd control weapons were necessary to control a protest that had gotten out of hand. The officer in charge of the dog apologized profusely for the accidental release, and the two officers responsible for shooting Díaz were put on paid leave. Police Chief John Welter announced during a press conference that an independent investigation would be launched into the two shootings.
These actions did not placate the protesters who are contending that this act is just the latest in a long line of abusive and repressive action by the authorities against Latinos. The number of officer related shootings in Anaheim has risen to 6 just this year, a number that the police attribute to increased gang violence, but which residents claim may be an unfair jump to the trigger when it comes to dealing with Latinos. Whatever the case may be, there is a great deal of tension in the city that hosts the Angels baseball team and the amusement park known as the “magic kingdom.”
In New Orleans, a shake-up involving the police was officially under way as well, however, on this occasion it was a needed change of structure and policy. After a federal investigation started in 2010 by the U.S. Justice Department into the makeup of the police department and several recent incidents, a far-reaching agreement for an overhaul was reached in a 122 page plan to address a broad range of issues. This was a “consent decree” reached after Mayor Mitch Landrieu collaborated with AG Eric Holder and the U.S. Justice Department on the overhaul.
The decree calls for many department wide policy-changes over the use of force in investigations, searches and seizures, arrests, recruitment, training, and lucrative off-duty work assignments. Many examples of reform have been issued before, but none so wide-sweeping in the number of issues that it attempts to address with the New Orleans police department. Interestingly, the change in the bayou coincides with similar efforts in Seattle and in Warren, Ohio.
We’ll look in to why exactly there are so many changes in the N.O. and also explore why such tension exists in sunny SoCal in what residents are calling a ‘Climate of Anger’. Indeed, some questions need to be answered such as: Are these protests and reforms based off of simply isolated incidents? Or are they an example of race-biased and unnecessarily belligerent law enforcement?
To expose the undercurrent behind the anger, we should explore the criminal justice history in Southern California and in New Orleans and the relationships between minorities and law enforcement officials in these areas.
Police & Communities of Color in L.A.: What’s Changed?
California law enforcement officials have had difficult relations with non-white ethnicities since the initiation of California into U.S. territory after the Mexican war. Discrimination, racial profiling, outright atrocities, excessive force and violence have been traits of policing in Southern California throughout its American history. Unfortunately, any effort to curtailing these actions to protect basic civil rights was muted until the 1960s.
A very prescient report issued by the California Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1963 highlighted a very tense atmosphere between communities of color and the police. Citing many reasons for this frosty relationship, the report listed many acts on the part of police reported by minority citizens and civil rights groups as part of the cause. These acts included: excessive violence, ignorance of white offenders for similar crimes, use of offensive language by officers, and harsh behavior by white officers towards minorities in the police force.
The accounts of the report were not a new development at the time. Though an influx of minorities in the beginning of the 20th Century was a demographic cause of police-minority relations, a harsh climate for law enforcement and non-whites had been a consistent problem. The arrival of many blacks and Latinos to Southern California was certainly a harbinger of a change in policing efforts.
From the riots spurring from the Rodney King incident in 1992, to the high rate of police shootings in Anaheim this year, the 1963 report was a long time coming and clearly shows a “climate of anger” that as history shows, has not changed much to the present. From the report:
“The Committee could and did determine, however, that there exists a widespread attitude among (minorities) that they are the object of discrimination.”
“If Negroes and Mexican-Americans in this community begin to feel that in every contact with police officers they may expect to be roughly treated, and if the individual police officer begins to
believe that he will meet with resistance whenever he attempts to discharge his duty in stopping, questioning or arresting the Negro or Mexican-American, a situation may develop in which the very expectations of opposing parties will create what each expects”
And so, a recurring cycle: certainly prevalent in today’s Anaheim.
Born (Not Free) On the Bayou
Although the most obvious logical conclusion for a history of police discrimination in New Orleans may seem to come from the history of slavery and segregation in the southern U.S., a more definitive answer lies in the aforementioned influx of blacks into the city in the post-WW2 era.
As more blacks left the failing entrapment of small sharecroppings in the rural South to seek better economic and social conditions, they migrated to urban areas where they encountered hostile law enforcement task forces. This was common in all urban areas of America (including the aforementioned SoCal), but especially so in segregated New Orleans.
Even before complaints against law enforcement officials were officially recorded in N.O., blacks were clearly the recipient of discriminatory and unlawful treatment based on black newspapers and from civil rights organizations who documented 1st person accounts. Police had developed an “us versus them” mentality, that sought to keep a social order intact through control without actually offering protection to the black community. Officers saw themselves as agents for protection of whites in the segregated South as blacks migrated in. This control saw the use of police homicides, unlawful arrests, racial slurs, racial profiling, assaults, threatening and abusive language, exploitation of black women, and lack of representation and justice available for black defendants in courts. High crime rates in black communities and rewarding officers for this extra-legal control only justified and reinforced the practice.
For blacks in New Orleans, the civil rights movement took an interesting turn in the 1970s and 1980s when legal freedoms had yet to be extended to them in practice. After the success of the NAACP in the Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1954 and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, protections for blacks had been brought onto the books through the legal process. The actual practice of equal justice though, remained elusive especially for poor, working class, urban blacks (the group most heavily discriminated against by law enforcement).
Many grassroots movements formed often without the support of the civil rights giants: the NAACP and the Urban Defense League, who were seen as relatively quiet on the issue for political gain. Middle class blacks snubbed the movements because of their activism and “extra-legal” manner in which they sought change. These included sit-ins, boycotts, close monitoring of police actions, and sometimes violent retaliatory action. the efforts of these movements brought civilian review boards of the NOPD, integrated police units, and most importantly, federal intervention.
But overturning a culture of discrimination against blacks is difficult, and the efforts fell short of complete overhaul until greater protection was seen as a need in the public eye. Unfortunately, it took a disaster and high profile cases to make this happen.
If the beating of Rodney King by LAPD was the turning point in recognizing the need for a complete overhaul of the LAPD, then the Danziger Bridge shootingsin New Orleans was certainly the key event that led to a thorough federal investigation into the conduct of NOPD.
On September 4th, 2005, six days after Hurricane Katrina had struck the Gulf, police officers opened fire on four men on the Danziger Bridge who, according to the police report, had shot at two officers. the officer’s bullets killed two people and injured two others. One of the men killed was a mentally challenged individual. All four men who were shot were black.
The reports from the police do not stack up with the victim’s account, nor the coroner’s report, or even the general truth. The original call that brought the police over reported that two officers were down, but this was untrue. The police say that both Lance Madison (one of the injured) and his brother (killed in the incident) were armed, while Lance Madison contests this argument, saying they were unarmed and the officers shot without warning. Further, police say they shot and killed Lance’s brother Ronald once in the back (the mentally challenged victim) because they saw him reaching for a gun. The autopsy report debunks this claim showing that Ronald Madison was shot seven times.
It’s pretty clear that this incident was a case of officers overreacting during a period of great chaos. But the underlying tones of this case stand out as yet another example of New Orleans law enforcement using unlawful and brutal action against blacks. The incident prompted several lawsuits against the city which were eventually won as officers were found guilty last year. This incident, along with others, was instrumental in convincing both politicians and justice officials that an overhaul was necessary to change the longstanding unlawful actions of the NOPD.
The U.S. Justice Department investigation in March 2011 found the conduct of the New Orleans Police Department had violated the U.S. Constitution and its protection of citizen’s rights, privileges, and immunities. This finding along with an agreeable new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, paved the way for the sweeping reforms mentioned earlier.
Conclusion: From One City to Another
So, while New Orleans undergoes sweeping changes that seek to change its long history of discrimination against blacks, will the shootings in Anaheim and the violent community protests spark similar action?
Clearly, the situations in the two cities are similar (otherwise I probably wouldn’t have spent so much breath writing this) from their recent strife and their law enforcement history. Let’s review some main points from law enforcement relations with minorities in both Anaheim and New Orleans that puts some perspective on the the ‘Climate of Anger.’
- In the post World War II period, a great influx of minorities into urban areas occurred creating a new culture for police officers to adjust to.
- Often, for many reasons, minority communities developed higher rates of crime, resulting in higher levels of police presence, and therefore a recognition of police as a domineering authority figure.
- Police used blatant discriminatory tactics and often violence against blacks and Latinos
- These tactics created a cyclical environment where police often expected law evasion when confronting minorities, and minorities expected unfair treatment.
While black and Latino communities have come to know the direct tactics of police towards them in these communities (and unofficially acknowledged by the public), violent tragedies like the Danziger Bridge incident have been required to create enough of a stir to make official change.
The quick use of the gun against Manuel Díaz rings a familiar tune with the shots against Lance Madison and his brother in New Orleans, so we shall see if there is a significant investigation beyond the initial incidents and if Anaheim sees an overhaul like New Orleans, Seattle, and Warren.
Until the next protest in suburbia,
Your Faithful Historian,
Eric G. Prileson
Sources and Further Reads:
Report on California Police- Minority Group Relations by the California Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, August 1963.
Leonard Nathaniel Moore, Black Rage in New Orleans: Police Brutality and African-American Activism from World War II to Hurricane Katrina.
Investigation of the New Orleans Police Department, U.S. Justice Department Civil Rights Division, March 2011.