There is nothing little about Kelly Lytle Hernandez. Not only is she a UCLA professor of History, Director of the African American Studies Center, and don’t forget, a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Fellow- she is now the recipient of a $3.65 Million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for the purpose of creating a living archive of mass incarceration in Los Angeles. The archive itself will be created by a joint effort of the UCLA Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies, the Asian American Studies Center, the American Indian Studies Center and the Chicano Studies Research Center and will be made public via digital platform by the end of the three-year grant.
Lytle Hernandez is no stranger to the history of incarceration. Her most recent book “City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles 1771–1965” lays out a bleak history that has led to Los Angeles hosting the largest jail population in the United States, and most likely the world. In her research, she was able to mine from what she called a “rebel archive” made up of firsthand accounts, journals and documents from families whose lives had been effected by the systematic elimination of non-conformers. It was her research that inspired her to start Million Dollar Hoods, an organization that digitally maps and documents the human and fiscal costs of mass incarceration in Los Angeles neighborhoods since the 1970s.
While her “Rebel archive” gave her great insights into the human aspect of overincarceration, her hands were effectively tied to this method of information gathering due to the fact that she discovered city authorities had destroyed much of the LAPD historical records and her requests for public records were regularly dismissed, a clear violation of the California Public Records Act (CPRA) which requires “inspection or disclosure of governmental records to the public upon request, unless exempted by law.” (CA Legislature Website).
As she progressed in researching for her book, she was alarmed at how many other grassroots organizations were experiencing the same deadlock with the LAPD regarding their public information requests. Unable to ignore this clear violation of the CPRA, she along with two other plaintiffs joined the ACLU SoCal in suing the LAPD. The case ended up with a settlement that required the LAPD to (1) immediately train personnel to respond within 10 days, 24 if under unusual circumstances, (2) undergo annual audits to evaluate its compliance with the CPRA, (3) maintain an online public records portal that makes it possible to search requests that have been submitted and download records that LAPD has produced previously, (4) start compiling statistical data on vehicle & pedestrian stops, jail bookings and uses of force, and (5) to preserve numerous existing and future documents including use-of-force investigation records and officer-involved shooting files.
The settlement itself is historic, and the information gained will be crucial to the development of the archive at UCLA, but it won’t be the entire collection. Overincarceration in Los Angeles has been felt first and foremost by the people who have been affected by aggressive criminal justice pipelines, and so Lytle Hernandez doesn’t want the project to be dictated by the LAPDs four years of records. The point of the archive is to be “reparative” for the community who has for so long been at the mercy of the LAPD- this archive is about reclaiming the narrative that people of color are more inclined to commit crimes or that poor neighborhoods need more policing and less social services. These narratives are not specific to LA and the problem of overincarceration and police misconduct were made blatantly apparent throughout 2020. There is hope that America is entering into a new phase, one that recognizes its past and present violence and is focused on building a better future together. The archive project will hopefully inspire universities across America to look to the data and reckon with over-policing in their home states because it’s clear this isn’t just a Los Angeles Problem.
Author: Simone Bradley on behalf of the social equity coalition, a 501c3 organization