Latino and African American motorists in most areas of Los Angeles are significantly more likely than whites to be asked during police stops to leave their vehicles and submit to searches, according to the latest study ordered by the city.
However, the study group said its detailed analysis of the data cannot determine whether the different treatment is a sign of racial profiling by officers.
Members of the Police Commission, who had been eager to see the results of the $700,000 study, were clearly frustrated that the analysis could not better answer the question of whether officers engage in racial profiling.
"I'm sorry, but I'm still looking for the value of the study," said commission President John Mack.
Mack agreed with Commissioner Shelley Freeman that the study demonstrates how raw data on the ethnicity of motorists involved in traffic stops is no match for installing video cameras in patrol cars to record every stop.
"If we had cameras in our cars we'd know a lot more about what happens on these stops," Freeman said. "So I hope we will get cameras in our cars someday."
The collection and analysis of racial data involving vehicle and pedestrian stops was one of the requirements of a federal consent decree that was approved by a judge five years ago in response to allegations that the LAPD has engaged in a pattern of civil rights abuses, including the framing and shooting of minority residents by members of the Rampart anti-gang unit.
However, city officials had questioned the usefulness of the vast reams of raw data provided when officers fill out forms on every stop because they did not include factors such as the race of the officer, the predominant race of the neighborhood in which the stop was made and whether the stop resulted in an arrest and conviction.
When the Los Angeles Police Department released its first traffic-stop statistics in early 2003, the data also were inconclusive, prompting the city to hire an outside firm to probe whether there was racial profiling.
The firm, Analysis Group Inc., used complicated models that factored in the time of the stop and the location and characteristics of the officers and motorists.
The biggest disparity involved stops by officers not assigned to gang-enforcement units.
"Hispanics and blacks were significantly more likely to be asked to exit the vehicle and patted-down/frisked by non-gang officers in most divisions," the report said.
In the Newton Division in South L.A., even when considering mitigating factors, Latinos and blacks were more than twice as likely as whites to be ordered out of their vehicles.
The analysis said it is likely that 12.5% of white motorists stopped by police in Newton Division would be ordered from their cars, compared with 28.2% of Latinos and 26.5% of African Americans.
Racial profiling is one possible explanation, said Michael Smith, an author of the report, but he said there are other possibilities as well.
"Ultimately, decisions are made by individuals, and an aggregate analysis like this can't climb into the minds of officers out there," Smith told the commission.
The report said racial disparities in the number of motorists who are searched could result from officers' "perceived threats" from motorists, rather than from racial bias.
"Such perceived threats could be attributable to the unique history of gang activity in Los Angeles, most of which is associated with Hispanic and black gangs," the report said.