IT IS LONG PAST TIME to retire outdated stereotypes of the Los Angeles Police Department. Unfortunately, a recent blue-ribbon panel has given them new life.
Police Chief William J. Bratton commissioned the Rampart Review Panel in 2003 to evaluate whether his department was still at risk for a corruption scandal like the Rampart gang-unit fiasco of 1999. Ignoring the radical changes in the department over the last four years, the panel, chaired by civil rights attorney Constance Rice, incorrectly concluded that it was. Worse, it recycled old chestnuts about a racially insensitive, overly aggressive LAPD that will only make the panel's stated goal of improved police-community relations more elusive.
The key conceit of the report is a Manichaean distinction between what it portrays as the good policing in the revamped Rampart Division and what it sees as the bad policing that allegedly remains the norm in South Los Angeles. Rampart policing uses what the report calls community problem-solving to reduce crime. South L.A. policing supposedly relies on what the report dubs the "LAPD warrior model" and "proactivesuppression" tactics. Those needlessly harsh tactics are largely to blame for the police-community tensions that plague South L.A., the panel claims.
Given the otherwise bleak tenor of the report, one must be grateful for the accolades that it justifiably pours on the Rampart Division. But its thesis that policing there is an aberration rests on blindness to the systemwide reforms of recent years and the decades-long cultural shifts within the LAPD. The same innovative leadership at Parker Center oversees the Rampart Division and the South Bureau. It equally demands lower crime, professionalism and accountability from both commands.
The Rampart Division benefited from an infusion of extra officers after the corruption scandal. The added manpower allowed it to more rigorously enforce such nuisance violations as graffiti, a strategy that Rice denounced as gangster-like posturing in a 2002 Op-Ed article. Then-Rampart Capt. Charles Beck also tirelessly reached out to community representatives. As a result of these initiatives, MacArthur Park was reborn as a neighborhood sanctuary.
But South Bureau commanders and officers work just as hard at forging ties with the local community. They cooperate with other city agencies in combating gang violence. If those efforts have not yielded results as dramatic as in Rampart, the difference lies not in policing philosophy, but in the cultures of the two areas.
Officers patrolling in South L.A. face daily expressions of hatred and the threat of violence. Over the last year alone, shootings at officers doubled citywide, culminating in the June attack that paralyzed Officer Kristina Ripatti. More than half of them were in South L.A. Every officer making an arrest knows that he faces a far higher likelihood of resistance than in the city's other areas. As a lifelong resident of Watts and member of one of the LAPD's many community advisory boards put it to me: "The simple fact is that people don't understand what the police have to deal with. Every time they make a stop, they have to worry that their lives are on the line."
Under such conditions, officers will be more wary in approaching potential suspects. Supervisors are unlikely to allow such outreach methods as solo foot patrol. In a world where gang members gun down children, commanders and beat cops will spend more time pursuing violent criminals and making what turn out to be coercive arrests. The police are trying every strategy they can to get off that treadmill of pursuit and apprehension. But if the community and the blue-ribbon panel perceive those inevitable responses as "racially targeted" and "dehumanizing," in the Rampart panel's words, perhaps the onus lies on the community to stop young men from taking up violence as a calling.
As for the allegation that inner-city officers cling stubbornly to an arrogant "warrior mentality," the report offers no hint that any panel member ever rode along with officers or observed their interactions with the public. Callous officers still patrol minority neighborhoods -- and elsewhere. The LAPD must continue rooting them out. But they are not the norm. There are many more who try to treat every member of the public with courtesy and respect -- until their conduct no longer justifies it.
The panel's remaining conclusions are just as unsubstantiated. It charges that planting evidence "may not be a thing of the past" based on one sting that provoked questionable behavior on the part of a Rampart officer. The report does not disclose how many stings were conducted over what period of time before one proved fruitful -- a data-free method of analysis that characterizes the entire report. This anecdote more accurately supports the opposite conclusion: that the LAPD is relentlessly monitoring itself to make sure Rampart corruption does not reoccur.
Equally specious is the allegation that the department cares more about wealthy neighborhoods than poor, a charge that demonstrates unclouded ignorance of the revolutionary computer crime-mapping system known as Compstat. The LAPD remains unconscionably starved for resources, but it places twice as many officers in South L.A. per capita than on the Westside, and it monitors and responds to crime patterns with equal intensity no matter the ZIP Code.
The greatest contribution the police can provide to poor neighborhoods is a measure of public safety. They strive to do so every day. But their work is made all the harder when they face a wall of hostility from certain elements of a community. The LAPD has achieved enormous success in the 21st century, both in lowering crime and in becoming a model of professional and humane policing. It is a lost opportunity that the Rampart Review Panel did not more forcefully recognize that fact and call on responsible community leaders in South L.A. to do so as well.