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LAPD will drastically cut back on pulling over random vehicles over racial bias concerns

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Community groups in front of LAPD headquarters demanding that the department reform its vehicle stop practices, which disproportionately impact blacks and Latinos.
(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

In a major shift prompted by a Times investigation, the Los Angeles Police Department’s elite Metropolitan Division will drastically cut back on pulling over random vehicles, a cornerstone of the city’s crime-fighting strategy that has come under fire for its disproportionate impact on black and Latino drivers.

LAPD Chief Michel Moore told The Times that Metro’s vehicle stops have not proven effective, netting about one arrest for every 100 cars stopped, while coming at a tremendous cost to innocent drivers who felt they were being racially profiled.

Metro crime suppression officers, who number about 200, will instead track down suspects wanted for violent crime and use strategies other than vehicle stops to address crime flare-ups ranging from burglaries to shootings.

“Is the antidote or the treatment itself causing more harm to trust than whatever small or incremental reduction you may be seeing in violence?” Moore said on Thursday. “And even though we’re recovering hundreds more guns, and those firearms represent real weapons and dangers to a community, what are we doing to the tens of thousands of people that live in those communities and their perception of law enforcement?”

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The changes, which take effect in late November, were hailed by community leaders who were critical of the LAPD’s stop strategies. But the union that represents rank-and-file Los Angeles police officers said Moore had left the residents of South L.A. vulnerable to being preyed on by criminals.

The Times investigation, published in January, showed that Metro officers stopped African American drivers at a rate more than five times their share of the city’s population.

Nearly half the drivers stopped by Metro were black, in a city that is 9% black, according to the analysis.

Even in South L.A., where most residents are black or Latino, the percentage of black drivers stopped by Metro was twice their share of the population, the analysis found.

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Moore said the Times investigation spurred the changes to Metro, both through the statistics themselves and through the attention that community groups subsequently brought to the issue.

A second Times investigation published online on Tuesday showed that the LAPD overall searched blacks and Latinos far more often than whites during vehicle stops, even though whites were found with contraband more often.

Alberto Retana, president and CEO of Community Coalition in South L.A., said the changes to Metro were an acknowledgment that the LAPD’s stop strategies have taken a heavy toll on black and Latino residents.

But he said it was not enough. Community Coalition and the ACLU are among the local groups that have called for Metro to withdraw from South L.A. and for the LAPD to end pretextual stops, where officers pull over a driver for a minor violation and then look for more serious wrongdoing.

Marqueece Harris-Dawson, a city councilman who represents parts of South L.A. and has pushed Moore to address the vehicle stop issue, said he is glad the LAPD is taking the statistics seriously and scaling back on stops.

He called the low rate of arrests per stop “super, super troubling.”

“I was telling someone, tongue in cheek, that this is only Exhibit 5,879 about what the community has been saying about law enforcement in this part of the city my entire life,” he said.

In a written statement, the Los Angeles Police Protective League said the LAPD has “cut and run away from the residents of South Los Angeles” based on “incomplete data, presented with minimal context, coupled with sensationalized cherry-picked racial information intended to inflame and divide.”

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“The Chief’s decision to buckle to the demands of anti-police groups like the ACLU, who have zero interest in ensuring criminals are arrested, is deeply disappointing,” the union’s board of directors said in the statement. “We do not support this reckless gamble that will lead to the further victimization of people of color by criminals and gang members.”

The Metro vehicle stop strategy was implemented in 2015 by Mayor Eric Garcetti and then-Chief Charlie Beck to address a spike in shootings in South L.A.

The number of Metro officers more than doubled, and the number of cars stopped by its officers rose from a few thousand a year to more than 63,000 in 2017, making up about 12% of all LAPD vehicle stops.

Metro’s crime suppression officers are a small fraction of the LAPD’s 10,000-strong force. But because they spend much of their time stopping motorists and pedestrians, their impact on the stop statistics far exceeds their numbers.

Some criticized the Metro expansion as a step backward for the LAPD as it continues to shed its troubled past in minority communities.

But the use of Metro as a mobile strike force quickly became ingrained in the LAPD’s crime-fighting culture, with area commanders deploying the platoons to crime hot spots in daily morning briefings.

Crime continued to rise for several years after the expansion before dipping in 2018 and again this year.

The LAPD has already been working to reduce vehicle stops. In response to the January Times investigation, Garcetti ordered the department to scale back on the practice.

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In the first eight months of this year, vehicle stops by all LAPD officers were down by 11% compared with the same period last year.

Metro’s stops were down by 45%, in part because of a previously planned personnel reduction. The number of guns seized by Metro has also dropped, with 169 recovered through the beginning of October, compared with 701 in all of 2018.

Moore said that Metro will remain the same size, and no officers will be transferred out of the highly selective division. Some officers will be assigned to the targeted crime-fighting units, while others will train the rest of the department in de-escalation techniques designed to reduce the use of deadly force.

“That’s a far sight more return on our investment than the hundred vehicle stops that that group will do this week, and we might get one gun,” Moore said.

Moore emphasized that the issues with vehicle stops were not the fault of Metro officers but of how they were deployed.

Vehicle stops, including pretextual stops, will still be used occasionally, such as when retaliatory gang shootings get out of hand — but as a last resort, not a first resort, Moore said. Community leaders will be notified when a crime suppression operation is planned.

A Metro platoon will be assigned to each of the city’s four geographic bureaus, and each platoon will have a liaison officer whose job is to develop relationships in the community, Moore said.

Moore also has floated the idea of Metro switching from unmarked cars to black-and-whites, to avoid the perception that officers are predators lying in wait. But Moore said he is considering feedback from some gang interventionists, who said that the unmarked Metro vehicles may prevent violence because gang members are intimidated by the sight of them.

Shane Murphy Goldsmith, a member of the civilian Police Commission that oversees the LAPD, called the changes to Metro “a big step in the right direction.” She said she wants to make sure the number of stops actually goes down and that residents no longer feel over-policed.

Richard Rosenfeld, a criminology professor emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said the LAPD’s new strategy is a better use of resources than “saturation patrols.”

He noted that crime has generally continued to decline in New York since the city’s police department drastically curtailed its controversial stop-and-frisk policy in 2011.

“I would not be terribly concerned about an abrupt increase in crime associated with scaling that program back,” Rosenfeld said of the LAPD’s Metro. “And improving community relations, especially in South L.A. — that could over time help to reduce crime rates.”

Skipp Townsend, a senior figure among L.A. gang interventionists, said an increase in older gang members preaching peace, as well as recent cease-fire talks among rival gangs, has done more to tamp down violence than the LAPD’s enforcement strategies.

“I don’t see a reason to put Metro back in the mix, because it does not reduce crime,” he said. “They do get guns off the streets, but it does not bring any kind of peace agreement. It’s a Band-Aid.”

Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney who has urged the LAPD to reform its stop practices, said Metro will be moving from “very aggressive suppression” to “a mission that is more problem-solving.”

“You’ll always need your warrior policing skills,” she said. “The question is, is that the main interface? Is that your DNA for everything? It’s been a 40-year process, and the LAPD is in a place I didn’t think I would ever see it.”


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