We’re at a critical point in the cycle of police misconduct and “reform” — and we can’t afford to make the same mistakes again.
On March 11, the City Council received a report commissioned last summer to “examine” the LAPD’s violence during the George Floyd uprising. The Los Angeles Times and New York Times quickly declared that this “scathing” assessment revealed the LAPD’s “mishandling” of the protest response. However, our communities need to be cautious about what we agree went wrong.
The idea that the LAPD simply “mishandled” their response to the uprising is ludicrous. Police responded by doing what they always do: violently suppressing Black rebellion. With this report, we enter the next phase of the LAPD’s cycle of violence: proposing reforms that would only expand the Department’s power.
This supposedly “scathing” report is authored by Gerald Chaleff, a longtime LAPD insider. Chaleff has a long history of using LAPD violence to propose useless reforms and increased police resources, stretching back to when he served as Deputy Counsel to the commission to examine police violence after the 1992 uprising. Led by Ronald Reagan’s CIA director William Webster, the commission’s recommendations included raising taxes to pay for a thousand-officer expansion of the police force.
In 1999, Chaleff was made president of the Police Commission. He went on to serve as commanding officer of the consent decree bureau in 2003, and as Chief Beck’s Special Assistant for Constitutional Policing in 2009. Despite his long history with the LAPD, in June 2020, he was appointed to lead an “independent examination” of the Department’s protest response.
Chaleff’s team was comprised of five other former LAPD officials, three of them former chiefs. The purpose of their report is plain: to use the LAPD’s failed response to the uprising to win the Department more resources and power.
The first and biggest recommendation Chaleff makes in his report is the creation of a permanent new LAPD bureau devoted to “public order policing, incident command systems, [and] liaising with outside agencies.” The report calls for this bureau to be armed with intelligence-gathering capabilities, including through internet surveillance, monitoring of political activity, and exchanging intelligence with local, state, and federal agencies.
“Accurate and timely intelligence is vital to public order policing,” the report declares. Chaleff points out that software could be purchased to “assist the Department in gathering open-source information on the internet, analyzing it, and making it useful intelligence.”
Using this moment to create a new surveillance and intelligence-gathering bureau, permanently devoted to “public order policing,” is shockingly dangerous. This proposal is a barely-masked attempt to revive the LAPD’s notorious Public Disorder Investigation Division (PDID).
Created in 1970 as a reaction to the Watts Rebellion, PDID infiltrated hundreds of community groups, labor unions, and newspapers; kept secret dossiers on thousands of activists, organizers, and community members; spied on judges and elected officials; instigated violence to frame protestors; and supplied right-wing groups with intelligence collected through police surveillance.
PDID targeted everyone the police viewed as a threat to right-wing and white supremacist values. As the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition documented, PDID agents infiltrated and spied on the United Farm Workers, the American Indian Movement, the Congress of Mexican Unity, the Black Congress, the National Organization for Women, student groups at UCLA and CSU Northridge, the Coalition Against Police Abuse, and hundreds of other groups. PDID agents helped instigate riots at peaceful rallies, and one agent even infiltrated the Brown Berets and set fires in a hotel where Ronald Reagan was giving a speech. These scandals, as well as a lawsuit by the Coalition Against Police Abuse, forced the LAPD to dismantle PDID in 1983.
However, over the years, the Police Commission — the “civilian oversight” body that constantly sanitizes and rubber-stamps LAPD’s violence — has eased limits that were placed on police surveillance after the PPID scandals. In 2012, the Commission watered down the LAPD’s Intelligence Gathering Guidelines, which led to widespread racial profiling and targeting of communities through the Suspicious Activity Reporting system, or SAR.
The SAR system, launched during Chaleff’s time as Special Assistant for Constitutional Policing, was intended to flag activity related to “foreign or domestic terrorism.” Audits by both the LAPD’s Inspector General and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition revealed that SAR disproportionately targeted Black and brown people, and that an outsized share of SAR tips came from predominantly white neighborhoods.
Shortly after the SAR system’s creation, the LAPD also launched Operation LASER (Los Angeles Strategic Extraction and Restoration), an algorithmic policing program that used surveillance, data collection, and analytics to target “chronic offenders.”
The LAPD uses a variety of surveillance tools to generate and harvest data for programs like these, including the face recognition system the LAPD secretly used on images and footage from the George Floyd protests. Even more alarmingly, decades after PDID disbanded, LAPD agents continue to infiltrate groups critical of white supremacy and policing.
Just two years ago,LAPD’s Major Crimes Division infiltrated Refuse Fascism, a group organizing rallies against the Trump administration’s policies. Police informants secretly recorded the group’s meetings at the Echo Park United Methodist Church, and this evidence was used to prosecute the group’s members for criminal trespassing during two entirely peaceful anti-Trump demonstrations. The L.A. Times editorial board warned that this “infiltration of an anti-Trump activist group is deeply troubling and brings to mind a long history of improper LAPD spying.”
Chaleff’s new report even notes that LAPD “shadow teams” infiltrated last summer’s protests. However, the report does not ask or answer a single critical question about that infiltration — including whether these officers instigated or entrapped members of the community, as the LAPD’s agents have a long history of doing. Instead, Chaleff simply proposes better “communication” and coordination with the agents infiltrating protests, presumably directed by the new Public Order Policing command. This proposal is unacceptably dangerous, and a barely-masked effort to revive PDID’s reign of political repression.
What makes PDID’s history especially alarming is that police no longer need to physically infiltrate community groups in order to monitor and repress political activity. Today, they can accomplish the same, if not worse, through mass internet surveillance, especially when supercharged by the data-mining and analytical software Chaleff proposes the LAPD purchase.
Although the proposal is framed as preparation for “emergencies” rather than ongoing intelligence-gathering and surveillance, we know where this will lead. The LAPD has always used its surveillance powers to target Black and brown communities, and to repress those who criticize the police.
Much as PPID grew out of the Watts rebellion, Chaleff’s proposal to create this new “public order policing” bureau comes as a time of extreme skepticism of policing’s value. LAPD knows that demands to defund the police are extremely popular: a Loyola Marymount study presented to the Police Commission in December showed that around two-third of Angelenos support proposals to “redirect some money” from the police budget to local programs, while over a third support proposals to “completely dismantle police departments.” With this sentiment growing, the LAPD is likely eager to monitor those who are confronting its violence and threatening its power.
Interestingly, Chaleff’s report criticizes the failure of “reforms” implemented after police violence during the Democratic National Convention in 2000, MacArthur Park May Day demonstrations in 2007, and Occupy L.A. demonstrations in 2011. Mr. Chaleff himself was responsible for the implementation of those reforms. It is baffling that he is now being asked for more proposals to add to his record of failure.
While the failures here are of course Chaleff’s, some blame also must go to City Council, which moved — after massive community condemnation of police violence, lies, and impunity — to appoint an LAPD insider to “examine” the police response. Sure enough, Chaleff’s team interviewed “over 100 members of the LAPD (more than 50 of whom were on the leadership team)” and exactly 10 non-police, all of them from a list that “City Council members provided.” It should surprise no one that this investigation, featuring almost zero effort to hear from the community, offers nothing but calls to expand policing.
To make matters worse, Chaleff’s is just one of three reports commissioned by the city on the police response to the uprising, the other two being written by the LAPD and the Police Commission. It’s hard to see this review as anything but a police coup — one that City Council is very complicit in.
Chaleff’s proposals must be understood as part of an ongoing cycle in which the LAPD brutally attacks communities protesting police violence, LAPD insiders are hired to examine their own misconduct, and “reforms” are designed to expand police resources rather than listen to the community’s demands. The next time the community protests, the LAPD is equipped to respond with even more brutality. We saw this after the Watts rebellion, we saw it in 1992, and we saw it after the Ferguson uprising. Going down that path again is the exact opposite of what our communities braved the LAPD’s violence last summer to demand: defunding the police.