This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on April 27, 2017.
25 years ago, I was leading patrols in riot-torn Los Angeles as an Army National Guard captain. In 24 hours, I went from working on a missile defense project in a windowless office in San Jose to 18 days of unexpected active duty 400 miles to the south.
A main cause for my sudden shift from citizen to soldier was, unfortunately, people in authority making errors in judgement combined with the speed and widespread dissemination of information inherent in modern communications.
The following four examples illustrate the challenge.
March 1991/April 1992, Los Angeles, California: with violent crime at an all-time high (more than three times higher than in 2016) law enforcement is stretched and harried while citizens are growing frustrated. Police officers apprehend an intoxicated felon after a high-speed chase leading to a violent confrontation. A citizen videotaped the last minute-and-a-half of the arrest which appeared on television news a few days later. Four of the arresting officers are eventually charged with using excessive force, but are acquitted on April 29, 1992. As news of the acquittal of the four officers in the Rodney King excessive force arrest spread, a mob gathered on a busy Los Angeles intersection and began to attack drivers. Police responded, but then retreat, abandoning the intersection to the mob for almost three hours. Television news helicopters provided live coverage of the growing mayhem. Violence spiraled out of control leading to the L.A. Riots. 53 people are killed, more than 2,000 injured, and more than 11,000 arrests are made with property damage in excess of $1 billion.
2003, Iraq: Soldiers and officers overseeing Abu Ghraib prison, a detainee facility, commit a series of human rights violations. In April 2004, these abuses become public, with photos, in a series of news broadcasts. This, in turn, adds fuel to an insurgency, costing the lives of American and allied military personnel as well as additional Iraqi deaths while adding billions of dollars in costs for the military operation.
2014, Ferguson, Missouri: a police officer fatally shoots a man during a violent confrontation, leading to unrest that injures 16 members of the public and police officers, 321 arrests, looting and property damage. The Ferguson riots were preceded by a municipal policy that turned the police department into a potent revenue tool, with law enforcement officers and the courts responsible for generating up to 23 percent of the city budget in 2015 through fines and fees to make up for a shortfall in tax revenue. This policy poisons police-community relations.
April 9, 2017, Chicago: a passenger is forcibly removed from a United Airlines (NYSE: UAL) flight to make room for a United flight crew. He suffers a concussion, a broken nose and the loss of two teeth. Federal regulations that limit the amount of compensation for involuntary denial of a purchased seat play a role in airlines’ routine lowballing of offers to compensate bounced passengers. United’s reputation takes a major hit and its stock value declines by hundreds of millions of dollars.
In every case listed above, people with power: elected officials, corporate officers, managers, military officers, and police officers, took actions that the public viewed as unfair or abusive. Today, due to the ubiquity of rapid communications, most of it visual, incidents that in the past would have been known only to a small number of people are instead seen and shared by millions, often within hours.
In the case of United Airlines, after an initial misstep, the firm’s president and CEO, Oscar Munoz, moved rapidly to change policy. He declared that law enforcement authorities would no longer be called in to remove passengers whose seats were needed for others. He also decided to allow United’s on the spot representatives to offer as much as $10,000 to entice passengers to voluntarily give up their seats when needed. Had he not taken those steps, United stood to lose significant market share to its competitors. In this case, the market demanded corrective measures—adapt or go out of business.
Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of 21,000 outside of St. Louis, is 67 percent black but, before the 2015 city council election, had a predominately white city council and police force. In the wake of the latest recession, the city council struggled to raise revenue. It did so by ramping up fines and fees, using the police department and court system as a revenue tool.
For instance, the City of Ferguson levied fines of $77 to $102 for “weeds/tall grass” on residential lawns. A nearby town assessed $5 for the same infraction. Ferguson’s parking fine was $102, with fines in the surrounding cities ranging from $5 to $100. Unpaid fines led to arrest warrants.
The hiked municipal fines engendered hardship and resentment in the city and made the job of public safety much more difficult. The urban unrest in the wake of a police shooting death was simply a spark on a power keg of bad policy built over the preceding five years.
The City of Ferguson has a monopoly of a sort as there can only be one city in the geographic area it covers. Policy, training and management wasn’t subject to the same sort of immediate pressure as was United Airlines. People in authority—the city council, the city manager, the police chief, police officers and municipal judges—were largely insulated from the consequences of their actions.
From a leadership and training standpoint, Abu Ghraib and the lead up to the 1992 L.A. Riots have common elements of failure. Military historian Hew Strachan notes in his book, The Direction of War: Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective, “Corporals do not shape strategy by intention, although they can by neglect and abuse – as the Abu Ghraib… (case) showed…” This can cause, “…low-level, comparatively minor actions (to be linked to) significant political outcomes…”
At Abu Ghraib we know that a lack of clear direction from the top compounded by lax management by senior and company grade officers led to a breakdown in good order and discipline of the detention facility’s military guards. When the photos of the abuse got out, the effect was explosive, setting back U.S. and allied efforts to establish order in post-war Iraq.
A military organization at war must quickly adapt or risk higher casualties and defeat.
Law enforcement entities, as arms of government, are under far less pressure to improve in the face of shortcomings. Layers of bureaucracy, union rules, tradition and culture, often stifle innovation. Civilian oversight is viewed with suspicion. Reformers are resisted, especially if they are viewed as outsiders.
In Los Angeles in 1991 and 1992, there were failures on at least three levels: political, supervisorial, and individual recruitment and training.
On the political level, the LAPD only had 7,000 sworn officers in 1992, the result of politicians putting their priorities elsewhere. In 2017, the number of sworn officers stood at 9,955. Accounting for population, there were about 2,000 sworn officers per one million residents in 1992 vs. about 2,500 per million today, a relative increase of 25 percent.
At the supervisorial or tactical level, public safety suffered tremendously when the decision was made to abandon the intersection of Florence and Normandie to a violent mob during the afternoon and evening of April 29, 1992. Had police reinforced their presence at the riot’s flashpoint, rather than retreat, 53 deaths and a billion dollars in damages might have been avoided.
Lastly, while Los Angeles, and most of the rest of the nation, was suffering with historically high violent crime rates in 1991 and 1992, making policing especially challenging, the selection and training process that allowed officers to use excessive force in making arrests had serious consequences beyond the individual cases of those arrested. Resentment towards law enforcement among a significant segment of the public made policing more difficult. When added to the emergence of widely available portable video cameras, the results were volatile.
These examples show that, whether they want to be or not, organizations with authority over others are vulnerable to any suggestion that they are abusing their power. Further, while corporations must correct bad behavior or risk going out of business, government often just continues with business as usual.
It is instructive to note here that George Holliday, the man who shot the Rodney King arrest video late at night in 1991, first took the evidence of possible use of excessive force to the police. They ignored him—because they could. It was only after going to police that Mr. Holliday took his tape to the television news. If instead the L.A. Police Department leadership took an interest in the actions of their line officers and initiated an internal investigation and corrective actions, the 1992 riots likely would not have happened.