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U.S. Probes Allegations of Racism by Torrance Police : Law enforcement: Civil rights lawsuits filed by black and Latino motorists help prompt inquiry. Chief denies that people are pulled over because of skin color.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The invisible line arcs southeast across the top of Torrance, a theoretical border separating the crime-addled heart of Los Angeles County from the relative peace of its coastal suburbs.

Torrance Police Chief Joe De Ladurantey calls the boundary a geographic “crust” and freely acknowledges that his 249 officers patrol it “aggressively.”

Critics of the department have a different term for the line of demarcation: the “Great White Wall,” they call it, a racial boundary that they believe is patrolled with apartheid vengeance by the overwhelmingly white Torrance Police Department.

After years of such complaints, the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating accusations of racist policing by Torrance, the county’s third-largest police department. The inquiry is an expansion of a probe that began in 1993, when the government sued Torrance to stop what it described as racially biased hiring practices in the city’s police and fire departments.

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A Justice Department official said the agency broadened its inquiry because of complaints such as those in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in September by three teen-agers with no criminal records who are now students at prestigious East Coast universities.

According to their lawsuit, the students were driving through Torrance in a 1979 Chevrolet strewn with history and calculus texts. Dan Mason, Lohren Price and Nicholas Cramer had just celebrated their graduation from a pricey Studio City prep school by taking in a screening of “Beverly Hills Cop III.” On their way back to Inglewood, where two of the youths lived, they were stopped, ordered from the car at gunpoint, patted down and made to sit cross-legged on the sidewalk while two Torrance officers searched the car for nearly an hour. The result: citations for a defective turn signal and a passenger not wearing a seat belt, both of which were later dismissed, the suit said.

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What got them pulled over, the three allege in their suit, was not erratic driving or outstanding warrants. They were stopped, they say, because two of them are black. It is not unusual for minorities to complain that police harass them with pointless stops in an attempt to discourage them from driving through certain white neighborhoods. Such claims represent one of the most sensitive areas of police-citizen relations and were cited as a fundamental cause of both the 1965 Watts riots and the broader 1992 Los Angeles riots. The complaints against Torrance allege a more intense racism. Civil rights activists and police watchdog groups claim that the department is among the most racially biased and militaristic in Southern California.

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“Every time I turn around, somebody has a complaint against them,” said Royce Esters, president of the Compton National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. “They just go too far over there.”

Adds David Lynn, a Venice-based private investigator who specializes in police misconduct cases: “As far as harassing minorities . . . they have one of the worst reputations,” Lynn said. “And it’s not new.”

De Ladurantey flatly denies that his officers pull over motorists because of the color of their skin, but acknowledges that “part of a police officer’s job is to sense deviation. Maybe it’s a taillight out . . . maybe it’s something else. You’ll get pulled over.”

City officials report an exceptionally high level of public support for the department’s practices, saying that politically conservative Torrance expects and even demands a hard-line approach to law enforcement. Any police department “mirrors the community,” said Wally Murker, head of the department’s detective division.

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Both the department and residents cite relatively low crime statistics as evidence of the department’s success.

Torrance recorded fewer violent crimes in 1993 than many neighboring cities of comparable size, according to the FBI. A city of 137,000, Torrance had 12 homicides while nearby Inglewood, with 112,000 residents, had 45. Compton, with a population of just 96,000, recorded 62 killings during the same period. Torrance also reported fewer rapes, robberies and other violent crimes.

“I’m not going to tell you we’re not going to take some heat from time to time, but I think even good departments do that,” Mayor Dee Hardison said. “We catch ‘em (criminals), and the community likes that.”

The department would not comment on citizen complaints against police beyond saying that it investigated 34 of them in 1993, sustaining 23. Complaints were filed directly with the department because, unlike a number of Southern California cities, including Los Angeles, Torrance has no citizen commission overseeing its Police Department.

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The Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Torrance--as well as others against El Monte, Alhambra and Pomona--claiming that the police and fire departments discriminated against minorities during hiring.

The other cities have reached agreements with the government, offering payments to a few African Americans and Asian Americans who were denied jobs. Torrance, however, has spent more than $1 million so far to defend its hiring practices, with City Atty. John L. Fellows III calling the Justice Department’s allegations “totally groundless.” Although a current racial breakdown of officers was not available, the government said that in 1992 only three of the department’s 233 sworn officers (1.2%) were black, 15 (6.4%) were Latino and six (2.5%) were Asian. Census figures at the same time said 1.7% of Torrance residents were black, 10% were Latino and 22% were Asian.

The government’s current inquiry into allegations of racial harassment of the public is simply an effort to bolster its discriminatory hiring case against Torrance, one Justice Department official said. However, the investigation has already produced statements by several former officers claiming that the department not only tolerates racism, but teaches it.

In court documents recently filed by the government, former officers--some of whom are minorities fired after probationary periods--said two epithetic slogans are commonly used within the department. NIT stands for “Nigger in Torrance,” they said; NITAD stands for a black person spotted in Torrance “after dark.”

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Some supervisors point out to new officers during their probation periods the difference between “street niggers” and “upstanding black citizens,” one former officer said. And new officers, according to claims in the court papers, are often instructed by their training supervisors to stop and question black motorists without cause.

A survey of records at Police Watch, a nonprofit Los Angeles group that monitors Southern California police agencies, revealed numerous complaints by minorities alleging that they were pulled over by Torrance police for no reason. When the motorists asked why they were stopped, they claimed that officers would reply, “We do a routine check on new faces in town.”

“I think they mean new black faces,” 21-year-old Willy Daniels said.

Daniels, who is black, moved to Torrance from Michigan this summer to pursue an acting career, and claims that he was pulled over seven times in three months yet never cited. Daniels claims that one officer made racial threats during such a stop, and Daniels made a formal complaint against him. Daniels said the officer approached him three days later at a local mall.

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“He said, ‘You little ----, you went to my watch commander and made a complaint against me. Now every time I see you, I’m going to arrest you,’ ” Daniels recalled.

Daniels said he was taken into custody, placed in a cell for two hours and cited for driving without a California license and released. Police officials say they were investigating Daniels’ claim and could not comment.

Jose Esparza, 19, Luis Ortiz, 20, and Jose Rodriguez, 21, described similar comments by police in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed against the department last month. They said they were stopped, pulled from their car at gunpoint, berated with racial threats during a 2 1/2-hour search, told to leave town and not come back--and escorted to the San Diego Freeway. According to their attorney, they were not cited.

“One (Torrance officer) said, ‘The white people pay us to keep Mexicans out,’ ” said Esparza, a night student at Inglewood High School.

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Chief De Ladurantey said he receives as many citizen complaints from whites as minorities. “If I were a citizen, you’re damned right I’d want people stopped . . . for having expired tags, for having a taillight out.” Simple traffic stops often result in crimes being solved and wanted criminals apprehended, he added.

Although the current race-related lawsuits have shined a stark and unflattering light on the force, it is not the first time that Torrance police have come under legal scrutiny. The city has doled out millions of dollars in recent years to settle lawsuits charging officers with everything from using excessive force to orchestrating massive cover-ups.

The first spate of costly lawsuits began in the late 1980s.

In 1988, two Torrance police officers were caught on video choking and clubbing Thomas Tice, 20, at a Sunday afternoon party. The tape showed them continuing to choke and beat Tice, who is white, well after he became unconscious. Tice and five other party-goers settled a lawsuit against the city for $105,000.

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Two years later, the city agreed to pay $1.9 million to a construction worker shot in the neck by an officer during a 1988 traffic stop, and $1.1 million to a Carson man who claimed that officers broke his neck with a billy club.

But the blow that many believed would force change in the department came in 1989. After a grueling six-week trial, a jury awarded the family of a young motorcyclist $5.9 million after he was struck and killed by an off-duty sergeant who had been drinking. The sum was upped to $9 million by a judge and the case finally was settled for $6.5 million.

Sgt. Rollo Green--who, according to testimony, had a history of alcohol abuse--caused the death of Kelly Rastello, 19, of Long Beach, by making an illegal left-hand turn in front of the motorcyclist, jurors said. The Rastello family’s attorneys, Browne Greene and Brian Panish of Santa Monica, had alleged that fellow officers protected Green by not testing his blood-alcohol level, altering witness statements and using one of the department’s few untapped phone lines to report the accident to commanders.

Although the Rastello case shocked much of Southern California, equally startling was a string of other cases--long kept in private police files and brought up at the trial--that offered a rare peek into disciplinary procedures at the department.

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Out of hundreds of pages of documents, the judge allowed the Rastello family’s attorneys to present 14 cases of alleged misconduct that resulted in little or no punishment, including an off-duty officer who fired 22 shots at a car, many of them out the window of his personal vehicle; a lieutenant who allegedly molested several children; evidence of rapes and beatings by officers, and officers driving drunk while on duty.

When the jury returned with its massive award to the Rastello family, it said the department had a “pattern and practice” of whitewashing incidents of officer misconduct. And several jurors laid blame for an above-the-law attitude on then-Chief Donald E. Nash, who resigned a year and a half later, six months before his planned retirement.

With fallout from the Rastello case still raining down, 27-year Los Angeles Police Department veteran De Ladurantey was brought in. Some City Council members said they went outside the department for a chief because of unhappiness at the number of suits against the city. Three years into De Ladurantey’s tenure, though, critics question whether much has changed.

“From what I can tell . . . things have not changed,” said Tim Rastello, brother of the motorcyclist and a Denver civil rights attorney. “That department is infected with the disease of denial . . . (and) until the City Council and the city manager recognize that there’s a problem, there won’t be a solution.”

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Certainly, 1994 brought more unwanted attention to the department. First, three officers were suspended, and now face firing, for allegedly socializing--in uniform and on duty--with strippers at a private Torrance residence.

Then, twice in three months, came federal civil rights lawsuits by citizens claiming that they were wrongfully stopped. In both cases, plaintiffs alleged that the officers leveled guns at their heads, tore apart their vehicles with no probable cause and without permission, intentionally and painfully yanked their testicles during body searches and made numerous racist threats.

“One said that Torrance officers had shot Hispanic teen-agers before just for wearing big (street gang uniform) pants,” Jose Esparza said. “That’s what got us scared.”

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City officials say they are highly skeptical of both stories. And De Ladurantey said complaints and litigation are an inherent part of modern policing--even in suburban Torrance.

“We are aggressive, and sometimes we get some lawsuits,” he said. “Whenever it appears that somebody’s chipping away at that crust, we’re going to rise to the occasion.”

Robert Cramer, an assistant city attorney with the city of Los Angeles and the father of Nicholas Cramer, a plaintiff in one of the lawsuits, said the three boys involved were not chipping away at anything the night of May 26--they were returning home from a movie. And he wrote De Ladurantey a letter after the incident.

“In the course of my work I regularly defend police officers and police policy,” Cramer wrote. “While I am understanding of the pressures borne by the police, I do not wish my son to live in a world in which he and his friends are confronted and ordered about by two officers at gunpoint, in which he is intimidated and traumatized by uniformed thugs . . . in which police officers believe a white boy traveling with two blacks is unusual, or an indication of potential crime.”

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