LAPD -- it’s not quite reformed

Mark Rosenbaum is the legal director of the ACLU of Southern California. Peter Bibring is a staff attorney.

On June 8, a District Court judge will once again consider the future of the federal consent decree under which the Los Angeles Police Department has operated for the last eight years. The court will decide whether the decree -- which was designed to address a series of long-standing problems by imposing a detailed and ambitious program of reform -- should continue or whether it should be allowed to lapse.

Many Angelenos remember those problems well: the tolerance of excessive force within the LAPD; the aggressive, even lawless, attitude that resulted in the Rampart scandal; and the racial bias that erupted repeatedly from the Watts riots to the Rodney King beating. In the years since the agreement was reached in 2000, there’s no question that the LAPD has made substantial strides in changing the culture of the department, for which Chief William J. Bratton, the Police Commission and the entire department deserve great credit.

But progress does not mean that all necessary reforms have been accomplished or have taken permanent root. That’s why we don’t believe the time has come to lift the decree.


Most notably, the department still shows disturbing and unjustifiable racial patterns in the way it does its policing. A report prepared last fall for the ACLU of Southern California by Yale economist Ian Ayres examined detailed data on more than 800,000 cases in which the LAPD stopped pedestrians or drivers between July 2003 and June 2004. It found racial disparities that could not be justified by any legitimate rationales evident in the data, such as differences in crime rates in the neighborhoods where the stops occurred, the time of day or the age and gender of the people stopped. Ayres also found that while African Americans and Latinos are frisked and asked to submit to consent searches much more often than whites, those searches were less likely to turn up drugs, weapons or other evidence of crime.

What’s more, the latest raw numbers available on the LAPD’s website reveal, disturbingly, that racial disparities in how people are treated when stopped have increased, rather than declined, over the last five years. Consider these figures: When stopped, African Americans drivers were asked to exit their vehicles 2.41 times more often than whites between July and December 2003. That figure grew to 3.49 times more often for the same period in 2008. For Latinos, the numbers grew from 2.37 in 2003 to 3.68 in 2008. Similar increases are evident in the disparities in which African Americans and Latinos are stopped, frisked and searched.

The department has taken some recent steps to address racial bias in policing. For instance, after internal investigations upheld none of the 1,200 complaints of racial profiling filed from 2003 to 2008, the department worked to improve its procedures for complaint investigation and began putting video cameras in patrol cars. But the LAPD still refuses to conduct regular analysis of its data to track racially disparate policing or to identify officers, units or divisions that it should be taking a particularly hard look at.

It isn’t only the ACLU that has raised these concerns. A report released last week by Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government -- commissioned by the LAPD itself -- noted “a troubling pattern” in officer behavior from 2004 to 2008 in which “African Americans, and to a lesser extent Hispanics, are subjects of the use of ... force out of proportion to their share of involuntary contacts with the LAPD.” The Harvard study, while observing that views of the LAPD are generally more positive now than they were three years ago, also noted a “worrying trend” that less than half the African Americans and Latinos polled believe that the LAPD treats all racial and ethnic groups fairly.

The department also lags in other key areas covered by the decree that are essential to ensuring real and lasting reform. For example, in a February report, Michael Cherkasky, the court-appointed independent monitor who oversees the LAPD’s compliance with the decree, expressed “continu[ing] ... concerns regarding supervisory oversight” of gang units. The same report found that supervisors are not consistently meeting the requirement that they evaluate every case in which a person is arrested for interference with or assault on an officer, charges that are warning flags for police abuse. If there’s a shortfall in these areas on the eve of the court’s decision, when the department is on its best behavior, what will happen if the court ends its oversight?

An extension of the decree for an additional three years shouldn’t burden the department. Cherkasky actively reviews only those areas in which the department remains noncompliant -- so the department gets credit for the advances it has made. And although the court-appointed monitor should remain involved, the primary responsibility for overseeing compliance could be moved from Cherkasky to the LAPD’s inspector general, the civilian investigator who will have to act in concert with the Police Commission as the watchdog for the LAPD when the department is ready to operate without court oversight.


The LAPD has made commendable progress under the decree, but the community must not be exposed to any risk that could undermine that progress. The consent decree represents the most effective device for accomplishing police reform that Los Angeles has ever had. We’re getting close, but for this historically troubled agency, close is not good enough. This time, Los Angeles needs to see police reform all the way through.