Interview: Joe Domanick, Author Of 'Blue: The LAPD And The Battle To Redeem American Policing' Joe Domanick's Blue traces the history of the Los Angeles police and the shift away from a "disastrous policy" of using military-style tactics. The author shares lessons for departments nationwide.
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The Transformation Of The LAPD — And The Work That Remains

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The Transformation Of The LAPD — And The Work That Remains

The Transformation Of The LAPD — And The Work That Remains

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Police departments across the country are under more scrutiny than ever because of incidents like the one in Texas. For a lesson in how to move forward, they could turn to the LAPD. In the '80s and '90s, Los Angeles was trapped in a cycle of crime, crack and gang warfare. Journalist Joe Domanick says back then, the LAPD just made things worse with its crime-fighting strategy.

JOE DOMANICK: Which is to go into those communities, act like an army of occupation and prove to them that they were tougher than everybody else. And it was a - it was a really disastrous policy, and the people in those communities reacted to that kind of policing. That and the beating of Rodney King led to '92 riot.

VIGELAND: Joe Domanick follows that recent history of the LAPD in his new book "Blue: The LAPD And The Battle To Redeem American Policing." He says things began to shift with the arrival of Bill Bratton, the former New York police commissioner, in 2002.

DOMANICK: I think the reception for him was one of trepidation among the LAPD and one of relief among people that wanted to see the Los Angeles Police Department reformed. And so Bratton came to Los Angeles, and he brought with him many of the essential things that helped to reduce crime so dramatically in New York when he was the police commissioner there from '92 to '94.

CompStat policing, which was computer mapping of where crimes were occurring on a daily basis - and then deploying police officers to those areas and lowering crime in that way, and holding precinct captains, division captains and commanders accountable for crime going up and crime going down. It was no longer how many people you arrested. It was, if crime's going up in your area, then you're in trouble.

VIGELAND: And, you know, one of the scenes in your book that's very striking is when he goes to the police academy over by Dodger Stadium and basically chews out the command staff and says you all have a serious problem. You're going to have to change. And for a while, as you're telling - they actively ignored what he was demanding. How did he finally get them to pay attention?

DOMANICK: Well, he - (laughter) - he said that we understand force in the LAPD. And he said if you want to keep the crows away, you kill one and you put it up on a fence post, and they'll stay away. So that's when things - essentially what he did. Instead of him making himself available to be criticized by the command staff, he told the command staff I'm judging you. And that really jolted the command staff, and they started getting in line.

VIGELAND: As someone who's followed the LAPD for decades, I wonder if you could talk about what - you know, kind of give us your take on how it's doing today. Did Bill Bratton succeed in what he wanted to do? We've certainly seen, even over just the last year, the - the shooting death of Ezell Ford, a 25-year-old mentally-ill black man, still prompting demonstrations in this city. What does the LAPD still have left to do?

DOMANICK: Well, one of the things they have left to do is to really inculcate to their officers that these kinds of shootings will not be tolerated. The police commission faulted the officers who killed Ford because they had no reason to stop him. So the whole incident, they said, has to be looked at from the beginning to the end, not just what was happening at the very end when they shot him. What the LAPD has done very well under Bratton and under Charlie Beck - who's the current chief - is community policing. But even that is starting to slip, my sources tell me.

VIGELAND: Joe, can you describe for us briefly what you mean by community policing? What did that involve, and how was that kind of new and different?

DOMANICK: Well, community policing is you work with the community. You find out from the community what they think are the problems and how they should be met. You help to develop that community. You help that community to get better instead of trying to arrest everybody you can and take every black male out of that community, and it just - the situation just gets worse and worse.

VIGELAND: So is there enough progress at this point to say that Bratton's tactics work and should be copied elsewhere?

DOMANICK: What Bill Bratton did was he came into Los Angeles, and he said I'm going to give my division captains and my commanders - I'm going to give them freedom to reduce crime. And as long as they do it lawfully and they do it in the right way, I'm going to open that up. And that really opened up community policing for these young captains to be creative and to start to build real relations. A second thing that he did was he reached out to the ACLU, to the African-American leadership, and he said I want to listen to you. I want to work with you. And if I can do what you think will be helpful, I'm more than willing to do that. But I think the LAPD's got some real work to do to continue a process of reform that's far from finished.

VIGELAND: Do you see any successors out there to the legacy of Bill Bratton?

DOMANICK: Well, I think that Charlie Beck has the potential. But he's hit a wall in terms of continuing that reform, so I don't. I think the unique thing about Bratton was that was change from the inside, which is so hard to achieve in policing. But what we're seeing now is change from the outside, the demands of a whole new generation of millennials who really do see African-Americans as fellow human beings, unlike people of my generation - many white people of my generation.

So I think that's very important, and I think that not just the black leadership, but the black intellectual class - people like Jelani Cobb and Ta-Nehisi Coates - who are linking it to the entire black experience and saying look, you've got to understand this - that it's not just the police, that the police are reflective of a far deeper problem. And if there's this terrible crime going on in poor African-American and Latino neighborhoods, why is that?

VIGELAND: That's Joe Domanick. His new book "Blue: The LAPD And The Battle To Redeem American Policing" is on bookshelves now. Joe, thank you.

DOMANICK: Thank you, Tess, great talking with you.

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