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Some Echo Fuhrman’s Views of Torrance : Communities: Remark that city is ‘the last middle-class white society around’ rings true to some. But officials dispute charges of racism and cite town’s reputation as a safe place.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

He may be the most discredited former police officer in the country. And his words, in a jarring audiotape, have sickened many, including those who wear the badge he once did. But when former Los Angeles Police Detective Mark Fuhrman portrayed Torrance as the region’s lone white bastion, more than a few people were willing to agree.

For as surely as the LAPD has been tarred as a racist department, Torrance and its 250-member Police Department have long been seen--in Fuhrman’s words--as “the last middle-class white society” around.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Sep. 02, 1995 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday September 2, 1995 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Metro Desk 2 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
Torrance--A story in Thursday’s editions of The Times reported about a controversy in Torrance over a hangman’s noose being found dangling from a bank of lights above the desk of an African American employee in the city’s water department. The story should have stated that Torrance Water Department technician Larry Yarbrough acknowledged tripping over the noose--which had been around the office for years--and tossing it, out of the way.

So as disgusting as he found Fuhrman’s comments, Mike Salcido, of the Los Angeles-based watchdog group Police Watch, said that the former detective spoke the truth about Torrance.

“He should be given an award for honesty,” Salcido said Wednesday. The county’s third-largest city, Salcido said, has one goal: “to remain a white, middle-class community.”

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From a U.S. Justice Department probe of its hiring practices to lawsuits over its police tactics to a recent incident in which a hangman’s noose was found above the desk of an African American city worker, the city of 137,000 residents has long had a reputation as a place that is unwelcoming at least and outright hostile at worse to minorities.

“I wouldn’t know whether it is [still] true or not,” said Royce Esters, president of the Compton chapter of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People. “But I think historically, they didn’t want Hispanics or blacks in Torrance.”

That opinion is bitterly disputed by Torrance officials, including its police chief.

“The only people who are bashing it are the people who are outside the city,” said Chief Joe DeLadurantey. “You cannot come into the city of Torrance and find a resident, a business owner or someone who works here . . . who would think we don’t have a professional Police Department.”

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Or a safe city, for that matter.

Last year, crime statistics showed that of U.S. cities with populations of 100,000 or more, Torrance ranked 34th in terms of safety. Two years ago, Torrance had 12 homicides, while nearby Inglewood, with 25,000 fewer residents, had 45, and even smaller Compton posted 62 killings. Torrance also recorded fewer violent crimes such as rapes and robberies.

Beyond that, DeLadurantey said that since his arrival less than four years ago, the department has made strides to modernize attitudes and improve community relations.

Recent hires reflect the city’s goal of diversity, he said. In 1993, 27% of the rookies were minorities and last year the number was almost 50%.

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But the question remains: Is Torrance moving fast enough?

Four years ago, the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Torrance and three other Southern California cities, alleging that their Police and Fire departments discriminated against minorities during hiring.

The other three cities--El Monte, Pomona and Alhambra--settled their lawsuits out of court, but Torrance has spent more than $2 million fighting allegations that City Atty. John Fellows III has called “totally groundless.”

In the midst of that case, sources say, the Justice Department expanded its investigation of Torrance this year by looking into allegations that Torrance police officers engaged in racist practices, such as stopping minorities with little cause.

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While Justice officials refused comment Wednesday, the NAACP’s Esters said they contacted him Tuesday. “They called for the same reason you are calling me, because of the Compton NAACP’s concerns about . . . hiring practices and racism” in Torrance, Esters said.

Torrance, where 1% of the population is black, does not have an NAACP office.

Until the Carson NAACP office recently resumed monitoring complaints about Torrance, Esters said, the Compton branch heard numerous claims about “institutionalized racism” in Torrance.

“And I think it was probably true because too many people were calling up to complain.”

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Outside the bustling Target store at Sepulveda and Hawthorne boulevards Wednesday, feelings about city racial attitudes were mixed.

Tracy Brown, a 25-year-old African American woman from Long Beach, said Fuhrman was not entirely wrong in his description of the South Bay city. Brown said she frequently shops in Torrance and is sometimes the target of subtle racism by whites.

“They look at you kind of funny,” she said. “I’ve spoken to people who are white, and sometimes they don’t speak back.”

But Mack Hamilton, an African American from Carson who has worked at the Mobil refinery in Torrance for 11 years, said he felt safe in the community during lunch or after work.

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“I haven’t had any problems here,” he said, adding that he felt more comfortable in Torrance than in some Orange County cities.

Still, just last week, the stark spotlight of racism fell again on the city when it was disclosed that a hangman’s noose was found dangling from a bank of lights above an African American’s desk at the Torrance Water Department.

Another Water Department employee, technician Larry Yarbrough, acknowledged putting it there, but has denied any wrongdoing, saying he simply tossed the noose--which had been around the office for years--after tripping on it, and did not see where it landed.

Yarbrough has been on paid administrative leave since shortly after the July 27 incident. But City Engineer Richard Burtt recommended in a letter last week that Yarbrough be fired.

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The Police Department faces at least two federal civil rights lawsuits by groups of young men who say they were harassed primarily because of their color. Beverly Hills attorney Howard Price, who filed both suits, said Fuhrman’s comments may help his clients.

“I think the pendulum has swung back because of Fuhrman,” Price said. “If you live long enough, you see the public mood go back and forth. On the [Rodney G.] King case they had a videotape. Now you have an audiotape. And they both show what happens all too often.”

In the first case, scheduled for trial Oct. 3, three Latino men say Torrance Officers Martin Dempsey and Joseph Gaines stopped them, pulled them from their car at gunpoint and squeezed their testicles. After a 2 1/2-hour search marked by racial insults, the men allege, officers told them to leave town and escorted them to the San Diego Freeway. They were not cited.

The other case involves three teen-agers--two black and one white--who say they were pulled over and ordered from the car at gunpoint. They were in Torrance, the three said, to celebrate their graduation from an expensive Studio City prep school with a screening of “Beverly Hills Cop III.”

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After being made to sit cross-legged on the sidewalk during an hourlong search of their car, the three allege, they were cited for having a defective turn signal and for one passenger not wearing his seat belt. Both citations were later dismissed, according to the lawsuit.

Without commenting on specific lawsuits, Chief DeLadurantey insists that his department--and the city--are criticized for circumstances beyond their control such as its relatively white population and its affluence.

“We are getting beat up for all the wrong reasons, things we have no control over. The Police Department can’t dictate who chooses to live in the city, " he said.

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As for the department’s training and street tactics, DeLadurantey said, their value has been proven in the city’s low crime statistics.

“If you drive through the city, you will see we have a high quality of life. We have no graffiti. We have a minimal gang problem.”

And that, he contends, is “because we are assertive. We are. And I have no difficulty saying unequivocally that we provide this city with assertive law enforcement. . . . We do concentrate on looking for elements that have potential for being a problem.”

If minorities and civil rights groups contend that means them, DeLadurantey denies it.

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“Probably 60% of our arrests are of whites,” he said.

So if some see Fuhrman’s aside as proof something is wrong in Torrance, DeLadurantey does not.

“I must be blind,” he said. “I don’t see it here.”

Times correspondent Stephen Gregory contributed to this story.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Torrance by the Numbers

Here is a comparison of demographic information for the city of Torrance and Los Angeles County.

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Ethnic Diversity

Torrance

White: 66%

Other: 1%

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Asian: 22%

Black: 1%

Latino: 10%

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Ethnic Diversity

Los Angeles County

White: 41%

Other: 1%

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Asian: 10%

Black: 11%

Latino: 37%

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Median Household Income

Torrance: $47,204

Los Angeles County: $34,965

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Homes Worth $250,000 or more

Torrance: 84%

Los Angeles County: 43%

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Home Ownership

Torrance: 56%

Los Angeles County: 48%

Source: 1990 Census; Claritas Inc.; percentages rounded to nearest whole number.

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