The Changing Face of the LAPD
In more ways than one, a recent predawn roll call at the Los Angeles Police Department’s 77th Street Division was emblematic of the profound changes that the LAPD has undergone in recent years.
As two dozen officers were briefed on crime in their area, they were aided by computerized maps showing hot spots in the division’s neighborhoods, maps produced daily by a department far more sophisticated technologically than it was a decade ago. The room itself, meanwhile, offered other evidence of progress: It was a well-outfitted basement meeting space beneath an attractive station built around a palm-lined courtyard -- a far cry from 77th’s old digs, once so dilapidated that city officials lopped off the top floor, put a barrier across what became known as the “stairway to nowhere,” and then kept using what was left of the building.
Most telling, however, were the people themselves. Of the morning patrol officers who took their places on wooden benches -- some things don’t change -- fewer than half were white. There were at least as many Hispanic officers as whites, and in the parking lot outside, an Asian woman rolled up behind the wheel of a patrol car as roll call was concluding. The briefing had been led by Sgt. Morris Batts, an African American, and the deputy chief listening from the back of the room was black as well.
“The department has struggled with becoming diverse, not just with how we look but how we act,” said Deputy Chief Earl Paysinger, the LAPD’s highest-ranking black officer. “Are we there yet? Hell, no, but we’re getting there. We’re on the road.”
For the LAPD, the trip down that road began with the city’s entry into a pair of affirmative action consent decrees -- agreements made to forestall lawsuits. The first came in 1980 and the second in 1992. (A third, in 1993, prohibited the LAPD from discriminating against gays and ordered it to recruit in the gay community.) Although less widely known than the 2001 decree that ordered reforms in the wake of the Rampart Division corruption scandal, the hiring and promotion rules have wrought extensive changes to the city’s Police Department, literally transforming its face over the course of a generation.
In the years of Jack Webb and television’s “Dragnet,” the LAPD was a white man’s department, and that had ramifications beyond just the work force. Relations with the black community, in particular, were notoriously bad, and riots in 1965 and 1992 featured many scenes of African American protesters clashing with a largely white police force.
The effects of white hegemony played out within the department too. When former Police Chief Daryl F. Gates was quoted as questioning whether blacks responded to chokeholds differently than “normal people,” the predominantly white LAPD culture absorbed his gaffe into its lexicon. The department’s signature cars, long known as “black and whites,” were colloquially renamed “black and normals.”
“The history of the relationship between the Police Department and African Americans is one of tension, conflict and frequently mutual mistrust,” said John Mack, a longtime LAPD critic -- “I like to think of myself as a ‘constructive critic,’ ” he emphasized last week. Mack is now president of the city’s Police Commission.
In the early years of the last decade, when Mack was taking on the LAPD’s reputation for brutality and the city was straggling back from the riots sparked by the acquittals of the officers who beat Rodney G. King, the Los Angeles Police Department was nearly two-thirds white. Nine out of ten officers were men and just one-fifth of the force responsible for protecting and serving a largely Latino city were of Hispanic origin.
Today, as that recent roll call suggests, the 9,314-officer LAPD is a different place. Like the city, it is less than half white; one in five officers is a woman, and Hispanics make up roughly a third of the department, with their representation even greater in the lower ranks, reflecting more recent hiring.
“Fifteen years ago, this department was dominated by white males,” Mack said. “That picture clearly has changed dramatically.”
In part, the LAPD’s embrace of diversity has been under the threat of federal court intervention. The hiring and promotion goals for women and minorities are laid out in two of the half-dozen court-monitored mandates that set parameters on LAPD policies, from hiring and promotion to issuing handguns and regulating solicitations at LAX.
As with the decree struck after the Rampart scandal, the affirmative action measures are overseen by federal judges who can cite violators for contempt. Both remain in force today.
The first prohibits the city from discriminating against women and commits the LAPD to seeking to make them 20% of the force, a level that the department is roughly at today. The second decree grew out of a lawsuit in the early 1990s, and it provides the legal framework for the LAPD’s system for recruiting and promoting blacks, Hispanics and women.
It requires that the LAPD strive to reflect the “feeder pool” or “applicant pool” for those groups. It also mandates training programs and job counseling, and requires that department supervisors be evaluated in part on their effectiveness at furthering diversity goals.
Finally, the decree forces the LAPD to produce annual reports documenting its diversity efforts and detailing its representation in the ranks. Initially a burden, those reports now chart a remarkable transformation.
African Americans made up 13.5% of the LAPD in 1990, about the same time that the lawsuit that produced the 1992 decree was filed. Today, that percentage is down a notch to 12.7%, though the percentage of African Americans in the city population has dropped as well, and the lower number roughly reflects the percentage of black Angelenos.
Asians, though not covered by the decree, also have been a target of LAPD recruitment, and they have more than doubled as a sliver of the LAPD ranks, from 2.5% in 1990 to 6% today.
The most notable shifts, however, have been among whites and Hispanics: Whites were 62.3% of the police force in 1990 and are 42.3% today; Hispanics, who were 21% of the force in 1990, now make up 36.8%.
Those are seismic movements toward aligning the LAPD with the population it serves, but new challenges are forever arising.
Recently, the topic of much behind-the-scenes fretting at the LAPD has been the decline in recruitment of African American police officer candidates. The precise reasons are hard to discern, but over the last several years, the number of blacks signing up for the LAPD has dropped off markedly. In 2006, only 8.1% of the LAPD’s youngest police officers were black, and representation in the highest ranks has slipped as well. At one point not long ago, there were three top LAPD officials who were African American -- including its two chiefs before William J. Bratton. Now Paysinger is the only African American above the rank of commander.
“There should be greater representation at this level,” Paysinger said. “Ten percent -- that’s me. Just because we meet that 10% goal does not mean that we should not at least be willing to try for more.”
Other top officials share Paysinger’s concern regarding the dip in African American representation within the department, and Bratton, whose commitment to diversity is widely praised, recently put a new commander in charge of reversing that trend. That commander, Kenneth Garner, is black and now is responsible for overseeing the LAPD’s recruiting efforts, with a particular eye on its African American candidates.
Beyond that, LAPD leaders are urging their current officers to get in on the act. Under a city-approved recruiting campaign, every officer who signs up someone who completes the LAPD academy and joins the force stands to receive a $1,000 bonus.
At the roll call last week, Capt. Patrick M. Gannon, whose father and grandfather were LAPD officers and whose son is as well, urged his officers to take note of the city’s offer and to step up their own efforts to refashion the LAPD. “Even besides the $1,000,” he said, “it’s nice if you and I can pick the people who are going to sit next to us.”
On the wooden benches at the back of the room, officers nodded in agreement.
Next: How the LAPD has fared under the Rampart decree.
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Race and gender breakdowns for the Los Angeles Police Department:
1990: White -- 62%, Hispanics -- 21%, Black -- 13%, Asian -- 3%, Other -- 1%
2006*: White -- 42%, Hispanics -- 37%, Black -- 13%, Asian -- 6%, Other -- 2%
1990: Male -- 87%, Female -- 13%
2006*: Male -- 81%, Female -- 19%
*As of Jan. 8
Source: Los Angeles Police Department