Tom Bradley

LAPD Lieutenant to LA’s First Black Mayor

Careers in policing can often inspire life-long commitments to serving communities and to facing challenges head-on, even when those decisions may be considered controversial by constituents. This is the case for our next Trailblazer, Tom Bradley, an American politician and police officer best known for his two-decade long tenure as the mayor of Los Angeles.

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Tom Bradley’s career in law enforcement began in 1940, when he joined the Los Angeles Police Department. He was one of only 400 Black officers in a police department with 4,000-officer rank and file. His first years on the force were difficult in the face of racism that was rampant in the United States. He recalled there being only two assignments for Black officers in the department at the time—patrol duty on the Newton Street Division, which was a predominantly Black neighborhood, or traffic patrol downtown—along with rules that barred Black and White officers from working together, which remained in place until 1964.

Lieutenant Tom Bradley, LAPD, 1958.  Image Source 
Bradley attended law school at Southwestern University while he worked as a police officer; when he retired from the LAPD as a lieutenant in 1961, he began his law practice. His initial practice was rather brief, as he won a seat on the Los Angeles City Council in 1963. While a city councilman, he was not shy about speaking out on larger citywide issues he feared would affect citizens’ lives, including what he deemed to be a poorly planned offshore oil drilling project, arguing its potential for having a negative impact on the city’s environment. His willingness to confront issues in the city earned him reelection twice in the biracial district he represented.
But City Council would not be Bradley’s last stop in the Los Angeles city government. After a failed campaign for mayor in 1969—despite endorsement by the LA Times—Bradley hopped back on the campaign trail to vie for the position once again in 1973. Mayor Bradley was a true trailblazer, not just becoming the city’s first African American mayor, but also leading its citizens as they encountered many issues for the first time—a great example being the energy crisis of 1973-74. His initiatives developed programs to conserve energy for the city, encourage economic development, and improve public transportation, including the creation of a light-rail system and greater control over freeway construction. Bradley’s politics were well-received by many Washington officials, and he was even offered a cabinet-level position by President Jimmy Carter, which he declined. Bradley was in office when Los Angeles hosted the 1984 Summer Olympic Games—the same year he was considered as a potential vice-presidential candidate by Democratic presidential nominee Walter Mondale.

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Mayor Bradley would go on to become the longest serving mayor in the history of Los Angeles, winning reelection four times and serving a total of 20 years in office. During his tenure, he was bestowed a number of honors including an honorary Doctorate of Laws degree (LL.D) from Whittier College in 1976, the Olympic Order in silver in 1984, and in 1985, he was awarded the Spingarn Medal from the NAACP. The Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport—which he worked to expand while in office—was named in his honor. Upon his retirement from the mayor’s office, he returned to practicing law until he found himself suffering severe health problems beginning in 1996. Tom Bradley died on September 29, 1998, at the age of 80, but his legacy lives on in the city of Los Angeles, and in the field of law enforcement.

Black Trailblazers in Blue is created in partnership between the National Law Enforcement Museum and the National Black Police Association to celebrate the triumphs of African American leaders in Law Enforcement.