A Free-Fire Attitude: Guns and Police Violence in Late 20th-Century Los Angeles

Friday, January 6, 2017: 11:10 AM
Plaza Ballroom D (Sheraton Denver Downtown)
Max Felker-Kantor, Marian University
Recent attention to gun violence and police shootings in American cities such as Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, and Chicago has mobilized activists, residents, and politicians across the country. But tensions over police and the use of force have a long history in the United States. Using the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) as a model, this presentation will explore the use of lethal force by the police in Los Angeles during the 1970s and 1980s. Throughout the post-World War II period, the LAPD’s relationship with residents of color was repeatedly undermined due to numerous episodes of excessive force. The large number of police shootings led some observers to characterize LAPD officers as having a “free-fire attitude.” The LAPD characterized the killing or wounding of suspects by officers with the neutral description of “Officer-Involved Shootings.” Few officers were disciplined, let alone fired, for the use of lethal force. Department administrators routinely justified the use of firearms by officers as necessary in a city they viewed as violent and dangerous. Chief of police Ed Davis, and his successor Daryl Gates, advocated for guns that had more “stopping power,” such as the adoption of hollow point bullets, and opposed legislation restricting the sale of handguns. Although demands for reform by residents and activists led to changes in the LAPD’s shooting policies, I maintain that the deliberate effort of the LAPD to increase its firepower contributed to an escalating cycle of violence in the city, especially during the department’s war on gangs in the 1980s. The combination of gang activity and a militarized LAPD made the city into a war zone.