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Despite Criticism, Police to Keep Using Auto Theft Profiles

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles police said Monday they plan to again use automobile-and-suspect profiles to target car thieves in the San Fernando Valley, even though the method has come under fire from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Twenty-four arrests were made Thursday through Saturday nights using the method. During what police called Operation Slide Hammer, a 130-member task force watched areas near 10 intersections in Pacoima, North Hollywood, Van Nuys and Granada Hills and stopped motorists and cars fitting the profiles for the four areas.

To develop the profiles, police said they conducted a 6-month study of auto thefts and arrests and the types of vehicles most often stolen in the Valley.

Police said the profile for each surveillance area was based on several factors: race, age, appearance and behavior of the motorist; model, condition and value of the vehicle, and the time of day and location of the traffic stop.

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According to the profiles, car thieves are mostly teen-agers who steal new Japanese models. The typical race of the driver changes, depending on the surveillance area--from Latino in Pacoima to white in Granada Hills, the profiles show.

“The results of the task force have clearly demonstrated that a high-visibility, intensified effort directed specifically toward auto thieves is a viable means of combating the auto-theft problem,” said Cmdr. Frank Piersol, who directed the task force. “It is anticipated that similar operations will be conducted in the future.”

Although police were pleased with the operation, a Los Angeles ACLU spokeswoman said the constitutional rights of those arrested may have been violated if they were stopped simply because their race, age or car caused them to fit the profile.

“It’s not OK,” Joan Howarth, ACLU associate director, said of the use of profiling. “It is a shortcut used to pull lots of people over to find those that are guilty. It throws out the crucial right of each of us to be treated as an individual.”

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But police stressed that the profiling system meets legal standards for probable cause for stopping a car.

“This is based on a clear, accurate, concise analysis of incidents in the Valley,” Piersol said of the profiling system, “and we believe it provides our officers with the proper legal foundation.

“The profile system is based on the experience of auto theft incidents in the Valley,” Piersol said. “I think that because we have applied a scientific method that is based on past incidents that this is a proper means” of making traffic stops.

Howarth admitted that police profiling is open to debate in the legal community.

“The police need to have specific facts about each person they stop,” Howarth said. “The problem is that profiles so easily degenerate into racial stereotyping. That . . . is not permissible under our Constitution. The law-abiding citizen has the right to be left alone.”

Detective Glen Higgins, who helped draw up the profiles and direct the task force, said complete statistics on the operation were not yet compiled Monday. But, in general, those arrested and the stolen cars recovered fit into the area profiles.

“Most of the arrests we made were because we stopped a vehicle and occupant that fell into the profile,” Higgins said. “The officers would spot the vehicle, say, ‘That looks like one,’ and while pulling it over or after pulling it over, they would learn it was stolen” through a computer check of the license plate or vehicle identification number.

Higgins said officers did not keep a count of how many motorists were pulled over during the operation. But he said: “It would be in the hundreds.”

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While making the 24 auto-theft arrests, police recovered 17 stolen vehicles, Higgins said. Officers impounded 56 autos when drivers could not show proper registration, and investigation of the ownership of the vehicles may turn up more stolen cars, he said. During the operation, the officers also made 87 arrests for offenses ranging from carrying illegal weapons to drunk driving, authorities said.

Operation Slide Hammer, named after a tool used by thieves to remove auto-ignition locks so vehicles can be started without a key, was initiated because auto thefts in the Valley--about 50 a day--have increased by 14.7% this year, authorities said.


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