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Justice Department warns LAPD to take a stronger stance against racial profiling

The U.S. Department of Justice has warned the Los Angeles Police Department that its investigations into racial profiling by officers are inadequate and that some cops still tolerate the practice.

As evidence of the ongoing problem, Justice officials pointed to two LAPD officers who were unknowingly recorded during a conversation with a supervisor being dismissive of racial profiling complaints.

“So, what?” one said, when told that other officers had been accused of stopping a motorist because of his race. The second officer is heard twice saying that he “couldn’t do [his] job without racially profiling.”

The officers’ comments, Justice officials found, spoke to a “perception and attitude of some LAPD officers on the street” and suggested “a culture that is inimical to race-neutral policing.”

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The Justice Department’s concerns, which were conveyed in a recent letter obtained by The Times, are a setback for the LAPD, which remains under federal oversight on the issue. In order to rid itself of the federal scrutiny — which police officials have increasingly come to resent — the LAPD must assuage the Justice Department’s concerns.

The harsh assessment has also fed into internal tensions as members of the Police Commission, the civilian panel that oversees the LAPD, grow impatient with the pace of department efforts to more aggressively address the politically and socially explosive issue that has long dogged the city’s police.

Police Chief Charlie Beck disputed the Justice Department findings, saying they were based on cases that predated strict investigative guidelines put into place last year. He also rejected the suggestion that the candid comments of the two officers caught on the recording reflected a pervasive problem.

“It is a huge leap to paint the entire department with that brush,” Beck said. “And it is just not true. It’s not that type of department. We have a tough history that we must overcome and that takes time, but … the vast, vast majority of Los Angeles police officers today police in the right ways for the right reasons.”

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Nonetheless, accusations of racial profiling — “biased policing” in modern LAPD lingo — have continued to hamper the department as it has worked to leave behind a reputation for racism and excessive force.

Profiling complaints typically occur after a traffic or pedestrian stop, when the officer is accused of targeting a person solely because of his or her race, ethnicity, religious garb or some other form of outward appearance. About 250 such cases arise each year, but more damaging is the widely held belief, especially among black and Latino men, that the practice is commonplace.

In the letter to city and police officials, the Justice Department expressed “continuing concerns about the overall quality of … investigations of biased policing.” Federal officials criticized investigators for “going through the motions” and found they “simply take ordered statements from officers and then run down a checklist of required questions without following up on key points or asking fundamental questions one would expect.”

In one case the Justice Department reviewed, patrol officers passed a Latino man driving in the opposite direction and did a U-turn to pull him over for a broken brake light. After asking the driver if he was in a gang and checking to see if he had any outstanding warrants, the officers let him go with a warning.

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“The investigating officer never asked the officers involved what prompted them to look behind them to actually observe a non-working brake light,” the Justice officials wrote. “The investigator accepted the officers’ single-word answers of ‘No’ to the question whether race was a factor in the stop.”

“They are criticizing us for the way we used to do things,” Beck said in an interview.

He said significant progress has been made, not only in the investigations but also with regard to officers’ attitudes. Still, he said he was concerned about the tape-recorded comments of the two officers, adding that a misconduct investigation has been opened. In that case, the officers were taped by a supervisor who neglected to turn off a recording device after interviewing two other officers accused of racial profiling.

The Justice Department did not respond to calls for comment.

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Until last year, the LAPD was under a federal consent decree that the Justice Department imposed in 2001 after the Rampart corruption scandal. It required the Police Department to complete sweeping reforms on many issues and to submit to near-constant audits and monitoring.

The U.S. District Court judge who lifted the decree found that the department had completed most, but not all, of the required reforms. On racial profiling, the judge called on federal authorities to remain in an oversight role for a time to assess the quality of the LAPD’s investigations and the Police Commission’s ability to monitor the issue.

Justice officials sounded an alarm after a report in May from the inspector general, the commission’s watchdog, concluded that the LAPD generally was doing an adequate job. Justice officials criticized the inspector general’s office for “not asking more substantive and probing questions.”

In an effort to satisfy the Justice Department, Nicole Bershon, who took over as inspector general in May, is expected to release a detailed report at the end of the month that reviews 10 recent racial profiling investigations. The cases were handled by a special team of investigators the LAPD formed this year to look at complaints accusing police of searching or detaining a person because of race or ethnicity.

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Police commissioners have grown frustrated with the department’s work on racial profiling. At a meeting earlier this month, the commission’s president, John Mack, and Commissioner Rob Saltzman questioned whether police officials were doing enough. They noted that no officer has been found guilty of racial profiling by an LAPD investigation for years, despite numerous complaints each year.

Police leaders have long argued that because racial profiling hinges on what an officer was thinking in the moment, it is all but impossible to determine if he or she racially profiled someone unless there is a confession. When the commanding officer of the Internal Affairs Division offered that explanation to the commission, Mack dismissed it.

“I’ve heard many times that we can’t get inside an officer’s head, but somehow, some way, we need to figure out a way to get to the facts,” Mack said. “I’m not talking about a witch hunt, but I am talking about reaching a point where we can say with confidence that these claims have been very fairly and very thoroughly investigated.”

joel.rubin@latimes.com

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