The public voice of the Los Angeles Police Protective League sometimes feels like the last vestige of the LAPD culture that most in the city, and a generation now of department leaders both sworn and civilian, have been trying to move beyond. In its communication this week on the riots, the union's board of directors downplays the role of the riots in changing the department. It includes an interesting stat: about 7 in 9 of today's officers were not in the LAPD at the time of the riots, or by extension at the time that Rodney King was beaten in the dark on Foothill Boulevard.
The 20th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles riots has been welcomed by countless news stories and retrospectives on this important event in our city’s history. But many of these retrospectives have included analyses that overstate the riots’ role in the evolution of the Department.
Any balanced analysis must recognize that policing in general has evolved across the nation. Changes in the Department were part of a larger national trend of evolving approaches to policing. Community policing was a new approach adopted by agencies across the country as its value was becoming clear. George L. Kelling’s Broken Windows theory, for instance, showed how new approaches to fighting and preventing crime in troubled neighborhoods could provide better results than simply putting more ‘boots on the ground.’
It’s true that the makeup of today’s LAPD officers has also changed considerably and now includes significantly larger numbers of minority groups; officers of Hispanic descent, for example, now account for 42 percent of the police force. But this change is as much a result of the changing community demographics as it is of any single event in the city’s history.
The changing makeup of the force also means that fewer and fewer current officers took part in the operations that brought the city back under control during the riots. Many LAPD officers working today were not on the job two decades ago. Of the current approximately 9,940 officers on the force, only 2,641 were on the job in April 1992. Nearly 7,300 had not yet joined the Department.
There are varying opinions about what led to the events that prompted the 1992 riots. These were a major event in the city’s history, as were the 1965 riots. But in all fairness, they were not the single impetus for change that many analyses claim them to be. And while much has changed, it’s important to remember what hasn’t. The men and women of the LAPD, both sworn and civilian, remain committed to the safety of Los Angeles residents. Courage and integrity, which have been hallmarks of LAPD personnel, have never wavered.