The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Racist jokes cemented police culture that ignited L.A. uprising

It’s a culture that builds solidarity among officers while dehumanizing Black people

A Korean shopping mall in Los Angeles burns on April 30, 1992. (NICK UT/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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This year marks the 30th anniversary of the 1992 uprising in Los Angeles — a rebellion that took place after the acquittal of police officers in the brutal videotaped beating of Rodney King. The grainy recording, captured by George Holliday, made the routine, racist abuse of the Los Angeles Police Department blatantly visible.

But there is something about the beating that remained largely hidden from public view. Just minutes before pursuing King, two White officers involved in the incident, Laurence Powell and Timothy Wind, “jokingly” described a Black family in a domestic dispute as a scene “right out of ‘Gorillas in the Mist.’ ” After the assault on King, Powell, Wind and other officers exchanged messages over their vehicles’ communication system that included comments like “I haven’t beat anyone this bad in a long time” and “Oh well … I’m sure the lizard didn’t deserve it … HAHA.”

Holliday’s shocking videotape exposed the American public to police violence like never before. But the everyday, on-the-job behavior and fraternizing that made such a vicious beating possible was far less visible. Yet, these two cruel activities were — and remain — deeply connected. Casual racist joking has long worked to dehumanize the victims of police violence, while at the same time bonding officers as colleagues and friends. And this problem has only grown worse in the three decades since King’s beating.

After the beating was broadcast, the city commissioned an independent investigation of the LAPD led by attorney Warren Christopher in 1991. The Christopher Commission Report revealed that a significant number of officers abused their power and used excessive force against communities of color in particular, and that there was little to no oversight or disciplinary action taken to stem officer misconduct.

The report concluded, among other things, that “[t]he problem of excessive force is aggravated by racism and bias within the LAPD.” This conclusion was bolstered by findings that laid bare what officers said about communities of color while on patrol, illustrating how systemic racism in law enforcement negated “protect and serve” and normalized “ridicule and abuse.”

As the report noted, many of the violent racist remarks routinely shared by officers “describe[d] minorities through animal analogies.” Officers made these dehumanizing comments regularly while “discussing pursuits or beating suspects,” or while referring to shooting individuals in pursuit. The investigation uncovered numerous malicious exclamations that included, “Go get em my — man, and shoot him twice for me” and “Everybody you kill in the line of duty becomes a slave in the afterlife.”

The Christopher Commission Report was historically significant because it made the LAPD’s systemic racism crystal clear in the post-civil rights era. It also became the blueprint for future Justice Department investigations of law enforcement.

But the significance of the report was overshadowed when, on April 29, 1992, jurors acquitted the officers involved in King’s beating. Within hours of the verdict, the city exploded in outrage.

Desperate to regain control and legitimacy following this rebellion, the LAPD was momentarily willing to enforce its “zero-tolerance policy” on racist comments, including jokes, used by officers. As Pat Patterson, chief of public safety personnel, noted at the time, “there’s just absolute zero tolerance for this type of stuff in the Police Department.” This policy, the investigation revealed, was on record but never implemented.

Plus, the screening out of officers for using “offensive humor” was seen as detrimental to the hiring of “qualified” recruits. Penalties for racist language were increasingly viewed with skepticism as debates over “political correctness” gained momentum.

An incident in 1996 served as a pivotal case for casting doubt on this approach. Randy Mehringer, the son of a senior LAPD officer, Bud Mehringer, was on track to become a new officer. But the LAPD rejected Mehringer after he admitted to telling a “bad joke” during his interview. According to the Los Angeles Times, Mehringer’s “racial joke” targeted the 1995 “Million Man March” held in D.C., and its punchline “implied that many African Americans are unemployed.” The LAPD concluded from the joke that because Mehringer used “racially derogatory comments,” he did not demonstrate “respect for others.”

When the LAPD rejected Mehringer, he became an instant martyr among conservatives — and even some liberals. Leaders in Los Angeles used this example to home in on the perils of political correctness. Cliff Ruff, the president of the Police Protective League, referred to this incident as “McCarthyism at its ultimate. We’re in the era of being politically correct.” He added, “There has to be some legitimate quality control as to who may harbor bias and prejudice as opposed to who may have heard or told a joke.” Democratic L.A. City Council member Laura Chick took a similar position, stating that, “We need to be very careful that we’re not going overboard … that it doesn’t turn into a witch hunt.”

It was now “innocent police officers” who were perceived as the “true victims” of discriminatory and unjust policies. After all, as Chick noted, “It’s part of our national culture that these kinds of jokes are told.” She argued that without “raising the public’s consciousness that this is not okay, I’m not sure that it’s an effective way to screen out for LAPD.”

In the end, the Mehringer affair embarrassed the LAPD instead of improving its public relations.

Yet, as leaders turned a blind eye to the issue of racist fun among police, the problem continued to grow and fester across the country.

It was not until a new major rebellion against racist police violence occurred in 2014, in the little-known city of Ferguson, Mo., that this issue would resurface — this time through investigations conducted by the Justice Department, which revealed a series of anti-Black jokes being shared by White officers and city officials that were described as “derogatory, dehumanizing, and demonstrative of impermissible bias.”

Since 2014, investigations by journalists, activists, lawmakers, government officials and nonprofit organizations have revealed the problem of racist police humor as one that remains hidden in plain sight. Today, racist jokes permeate the social media posts of thousands of police officers across the nation. And this is only the tip of the iceberg.

But these investigations have exposed the problem without fully recognizing why it persists in policing. Police departments around the country tolerate this everyday form of racism within their ranks. Why? Because the reality is, policing in America could not function as it does without this toxic culture of racist dehumanization in place.

This humor makes the job of policing in a racialized society easier, because it makes it clear who the enemy is and who the targets are. It builds on the long history and widespread acceptance of racist humor in society — dating from the era of blackface in the 19th century. Tapping into this tradition helps officers enhance racist solidarity and camaraderie by reinforcing an “us vs. them” mentality — the “thin blue line.”

This shared worldview among police is informed by a kind of common joviality that dehumanizes people of color and regards them as inherently criminal, deserving contempt and violence even for the purposes of amusement. When this behavior is routine among those who are supposed to be upholding “equal protection under the law,” it should come as no surprise that law enforcement officers disproportionately target and abuse people of color.

In other words, racist joking among police officers normalizes systemic racism and white supremacy in the criminal justice system. This is what revisiting the Christopher Commission Report and the King beating, with 30 years of hindsight, allows us to see.

Understood this way, it becomes clear that the racist humor of officers is always more than “just a joke.” It is a practice that is directly interwoven and implicated in the racist abuse and violence of the police, even when their jokes evade official regulation or serious attention and consideration. But just like the brutal King video, once you see it you can’t look away.