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Taking bias out of policing is a tall order, but here are some starting points

 L.A. Police Commission

Matt Johnson, L.A. Police Commission president, says, “Anti-bias training is critical because a lot of this stuff is happening in our subconscious, and we need to be talking about it and dealing with it.”

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Thirteen hundred racial profiling complaints — and not one of them considered valid by the Los Angeles Police Department.

What does that say about our police force and our city?

That’s what’s troubling the Police Commission, the department’s civilian overseers, after LAPD investigations into three years of bias claims produced such lopsided findings: Residents — 0. Police officers — 1,356.

“I don’t think anybody believes that there are actually no incidents of biased policing,” commission President Matt Johnson told Times reporter Kate Mather.

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The mismatch can’t be blamed on hypersensitive minorities or racist cops. It reflects the difficulty of quantifying something as ambiguous and incendiary as race-based intent.

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LAPD rules prohibit officers from using “race, color, ethnicity or national origin, gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation or disability … in conducting stops or detentions” unless the stop fulfills a specific investigatory function.

Any action taken after a stop “shall be unbiased and based on legitimate, articulable facts, consistent with the standards of reasonable suspicion or probable cause…"

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That means that in every claim of an unfair stop, officers provided a reasonable enough explanation to allow investigators to declare it unrelated to bias.

That’s not uncommon; and it’s not specific to the LAPD, according to researchers who study law enforcement issues. Police departments in San Jose and San Francisco have the same zero-sustained records.

Some studies suggest that people accustomed to being discriminated against develop a sort of sixth sense that recognizes bias.

“People can have a feeling that they’re being treated in a way that’s biased, but when you ask people what made them feel that way, it’s hard to articulate,” said Stanford professor Jennifer Eberhardt, who is helping police departments teach officers to recognize and minimize stereotyping.

“It may be real,” Eberhardt said, “but it’s hard to translate that subtlety into something that meets the threshold” for racial profiling.

LAPD union chief Craig Lally sees the problem differently:

“Whether it’s their belief or their impression, I can’t change that. I feel sorry for those people who got stopped 20, 30 years ago and it probably was racial profiling.... But I would guarantee that stuff isn’t going on now.

“Unless you get in the head of the officer who does the stop, how are you going to prove what the reason is?”

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Statistics leave little doubt that departments across the country tend to police more harshly in minority neighborhoods.

Analyses of routine traffic stops, for example, show that blacks and Latinos are more likely to be searched than whites — even though police consistently find drugs, guns or other contraband on a higher percentage of white drivers.

Is that disparity due to overt racism or unconscious stereotyping?

That’s an important distinction in an uncomfortable conversation.

Officers accused of racial profiling think they’ve been branded with the “racist” label. That makes them less likely to be amenable to anti-bias training; they feel like that’s a punishment.

“They’re very frustrated, out there trying to do their jobs,” said Lally, who spent 30 years patrolling streets and supervising cops. “They say, ‘Hey Sarge, I didn’t know if he was black, white or Hispanic until he rolled down the window.’ But you get a few complaints and it looks like something’s wrong with you.

“That tells the officer don’t investigate anything; it’s not worth the hassle. Just go about your business and take the radio calls — if that’s the type of department that the citizens want.”

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The type of department we want is at the root of the dilemma.

Veterans like Lally came up in a force with a “warrior” mentality. Now they’re expected to be our “guardians,” making friends through community policing with people they don’t trust, who don’t trust them.

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Johnson, the Police Commission head, thinks the number of complaints will begin dropping next year, with more officers wearing body cameras and requirements that every patrol officer attend a course on implicit bias.

“Anti-bias training is critical,” Johnson said, “because a lot of this stuff is happening in our subconscious, and we need to be talking about it and dealing with it, so people can recognize it in themselves ahead of time and address the behavior.”

Lally believes that’s wishful thinking. “Everybody thinks ‘You’ve just got to train those guys better.’

“Police officers come from the pool of citizens.… They’ve got these perceived biases locked in. You think they go to an eight-hour training and it’s going to be cured?.... You’ve got to do that when they’re 5 or 6 years old. We’re not robots, we’re human beings.”

And because we’re human beings, I think that training, done well, might result in fairer enforcement and a stronger department.

The first step is getting past the idea that a reflexive reaction to stereotypes is the sole province of a racist. The reality is it’s hard to grow up in this country and not be marked by its racial and economic striations.

Most of us carry some version of stereotypes in our heads. We have to be willing to recognize and not react to that — to treat each other as individuals, not caricatures. Especially when you’re wearing a badge and carrying a gun.

That’s where the next part of the LAPD’s anti-bias plan comes in: mediation between the officer and the person who’s filed a profiling complaint.

It’s been going on for months, but not many officers have been willing to take part. Still, Johnson said, surveys show that more than 90% of officers and civilians wound up satisfied.

“The officers sincerely believe: ‘I was not acting in a biased way.’ The community says: ‘I have a better understanding of the officer’s perspective.’ Then there’s a lot of ‘I see how I could have done things differently’ on both sides.

“I think that’s better than any training we’ve got.”

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT

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