“You Can’t Put Them All in Jail”: Mayor Bradley, the Los Angeles Police Department, and the War on Drugs during the 1980s

Saturday, January 9, 2016: 12:10 PM
Room A704 (Atlanta Marriott Marquis)
Max Felker-Kantor, Marian University
After his election in 1973, Los Angeles’s African American mayor, Tom Bradley, transformed the nature of local government through the expansion of affirmative action in city hiring, the use of federal grants for social programs, and the passage of administrative reforms to increase accountability. One of Bradley’s central concerns was to assert control over the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), reduce the department’s tense relationship with residents of color, and create a comprehensive crime control plan for the city. Yet by the 1980s, as this paper demonstrates, Bradley’s efforts to construct a pluralist local state that was also tough on crime complemented, rather than challenged, the LAPD’s aggressive response to problems of violence, drugs, and gangs. This paper shows how the Bradley administration’s pluralist liberalism supported a war on drugs that, over time, was reframed as a war on gangs, contributing to the wholesale criminalization of neighborhoods and exclusion of black and Latino youth from full participation in American society due to surveillance, mass arrest, and incarceration. These policies reinforced a broader political trend that individualized responsibility for urban social problems and emphasized punishment, policing, and surveillance of behavior deemed improper. By managing urban problems through intensified policing and punishment, the Bradley administration’s waging of a war on drugs and gangs asserted a vision of strong state authority in an era of reduced aid to cities and declining faith in government. In the process, however, the police and local criminal justice system exacerbated urban decline, rationalized social and economic inequality, and provided an ideological coherence to views of the inner city as a criminalized space to be feared and avoided.