The sweeps came on Friday nights in South Los Angeles, often before big events like Raiders games. Police would round up young men they thought were gang members and hold them over the weekend to keep violence down, a campaign launched by then-Chief Daryl F. Gates to control “the rotten little cowards.”
Francisco McClure recalled being arrested several times, only to be released the following Monday mornings without being charged. For the young black man, the fact that most of the officers were white made the experience even more bitter.
The martial arts instructor, 50, these days sees more Latino and black faces patrolling his community of Jefferson Park, and he says the officers don’t hassle residents as much. He commends them for holding neighborhood forums and using more dashboard cameras.
But, he said, “they just cleaned up their act a little. Before it was white against blacks. Now it’s just blue against blacks.”
The Los Angeles Police Department often is cited as an example of how recruiting nonwhite officers can improve community relations. The LAPD, once a predominantly white institution, now closely mirrors the city’s demographics and is majority nonwhite — from the glass offices at headquarters to patrol cars working the beat.
There is wide agreement that the transformation has helped, turning even some longtime LAPD critics into supporters.
“The department has moved away from being an occupying force in South L.A. and East L.A. to one that interacts and is more representative of those communities,” said John Mack, a veteran civil rights leader who recently served as a police commissioner.
LAPD and community in a wary detente
But Mack and others also acknowledge that a more diverse police force has not extinguished distrust in the community it serves.
From Ferguson, Mo., to New York City, protests in recent months have focused on white officers using deadly force on blacks. LAPD shootings of black men have also sparked demonstrations, but those protests have focused on the race of the people shot and allegations of police bias — and not the race of the officers involved.
Activists in Los Angeles took to the streets after police last summer fatally shot Ezell Ford, a mentally ill black man. Police say Ford tackled one of the officers and grabbed for his gun, prompting both to open fire. Police have never said why officers approached Ford.
This month’s fatal police shooting of a mentally ill homeless man on skid row also drew criticism. In that case, police say, the man — who had a criminal history — fought with officers and reached for one of their guns, an account they say was confirmed by video of the incident.
None of the officers involved in those shootings was white.
Marqueece Harris-Dawson, the newly elected city councilman for parts of South Los Angeles, said the LAPD deserves credit for the progress it has made but needs to do better. In particular, he said, police need to work to gain the trust of more young people and build a generation that wants to work with the department.
“When I was young in the early ‘90s, I remember older family members telling me how much worse it was under Chief Parker,” he said of William H. Parker, who served in the 1950s and ‘60s. “I thought, ‘Well, I’m still afraid of getting the crap beat out of me.’”
McClure said he wondered how much progress had been made when he called 911 in September after a man with a knife charged him near his home. The two Latino officers who arrived asked McClure: “Do you have any warrants? Are you on probation?”
“I had to remind them that I am a victim,” he said.
Police Chief Charlie Beck is often credited with being a guiding force in helping to improve community relations in South Los Angeles over the last 15 years.
Beck said there are always going to be allegations of mistreatment in a department “that involves a million contacts” with the public each year.
The goal, he said, is to become more deeply involved in the community so that conflicts between police and residents are viewed as isolated incidents, not signs that the department as a whole treats people unfairly.
Command staff recently underwent eight hours of “implicit bias training” to recognize the subconscious prejudices they might hold. The department also runs a large cadet program as well as a magnet program in five high schools across the city that aims to teach and mentor students interested in careers in law enforcement.
Beck pointed to the work of a cadre of officers who have made inroads in Jordan Downs, a housing project with a violent reputation and history of ill will between residents and police. Officers help with a Girl Scout troop, take kids camping and talk to gang members about getting jobs and leaving the streets.
A national focus on race and policing
Even with a more diverse police department, officers continue to use force on blacks out of proportion to their numbers in the city. Blacks represent 9% of the city’s population but account for 19% of police shootings and 31% of less serious use-of-force cases. About half the complaints filed with the LAPD alleging biased policing involve interactions with black men, records show.
Beck said there is no simple explanation for those numbers. Race, he said, is just one factor, along with poverty and education levels, employment and neighborhood crime rates. Although blacks make up a small percentage of the city overall, they make up a much larger percentage of residents in higher-crime neighborhoods.
“To draw a straight-line comparison between use of force and race demographics ignores the many other disparities that not only exist but directly contribute to the situations and circumstances of police use of force,” he said.
Much of the attention nationally has focused on how white officers treat blacks. The killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last summer involved a predominantly white department policing a majority-black community. In New York City, where protests followed the death of Eric Garner, the department is 52% white, while two-thirds of the city is nonwhite.
But in Los Angeles, Latinos make up about 45% of the force, more than any other group. Whites, who accounted for 61% of the department 25 years ago, are now about a third of sworn officers. Asian Americans are a quickly growing demographic in the LAPD, about 9.6%, as they are in Southern California; they constitute 11% of L.A.'s population.
“If you get stopped by two Los Angeles police officers today, your chances of having two white males stop you is pretty remote,” Beck said.
The LAPD arrived at its diversified force after decades of social unrest.
The Watts riots of 1965 left 34 people dead and shocked the nation. The commission assigned by the governor to research the roots of the violence identified a need to improve relations between the black community and police — but no significant effort was made.
Then in the 1970s, the Center for Law in the Public Interest and the U.S. Justice Department filed employment discrimination lawsuits against the LAPD on behalf of women and minorities. To settle the suits, the department entered federal consent decrees promising to bring its ranks in line with the ethnic makeup of the city’s labor force, with at least 20% of the department being female.
The force steadily diversified through the 1980s, but that did not bring the sensitivity that reformers had hoped for. A study by the Claremont Graduate School in 1990 found that officers were remarkably uniform in the how they thought and acted.
“Bringing all these women and minorities onto the force has not made any significant change in the way the police perform,” George T. Felkenes, a criminal justice professor who led the project, said at the time. “Once they get in the department, they’re shaped and molded into what the department wants them to be.”
Riots and Rampart as catalysts for change
The turning point for Los Angeles and the LAPD came after the 1991 beating of Rodney G. King. Riots followed the acquittal of four officers tried for assault; three of them were white, one Latino.
Mac Shorty said he was among those out robbing and looting. A young black man, he was furious about the acquittal, furious about sitting on the curb, over and over, hands on top of his head, shoes off, cops looking in his socks for crack cocaine.
“They’d just plain old harass,” recalled Shorty, who now sits on the Watts Neighborhood Council. “There’d be days where two or three times a day, they would bump you up.”
An independent investigative panel led by future U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher found that “too many patrol officers view citizens with resentment and hostility.” It pushed for an overhaul of the department’s disciplinary system, a shift toward community policing and the resignation of the militaristic Chief Gates.
Gates did step down, and the department gradually implemented reforms. But, seven years after the Christopher Commission report, the Rampart scandal exploded.
Gang officers in the predominantly Latino area west of downtown were accused of covering up bad shootings, beating suspects, planting evidence, stealing drugs and lying in court. The allegations spread to other gang units. More than a dozen officers left the force: Some were fired; others resigned amid investigations. More than 100 criminal convictions were overturned, and the city had to pay more than $70 million to victims.
The federal government threatened to sue to take control of the LAPD. Under a new consent decree imposed in 2001, the department agreed to scores of measures that overhauled the way it took complaints from citizens, used confidential informants, ran gang units, investigated uses of force by officers and audited itself.
In the 12 years it took for the department to be released from the decree, policing in Los Angeles went through a metamorphosis.
These days, Shorty, the rioter turned community leader, calls LAPD captains by their first names and nicknames. Phil Tingirides is Capt. T., an affable presence at neighborhood meetings and events. He has helped start a youth football team in Watts, a track team, a tutoring program and a college scholarship program.
At a recent community meeting, residents were grumbling over whether having officers wear body cameras would really curb misbehavior. Shorty stood up and pointed to Capt. T, who is white. “Him and I don’t always agree with each other, but at the end of the day, we have a working relationship,” he said. “He’s still my friend.”
Shorty’s neighbors listened, then continued grumbling — suggesting that some relationships are built slowly.
On a recent day, Officers Joe Chacon and Dan Rios made a house call off South Gless Street in the Pico Gardens housing project. They are two of nearly 50 officers who grew up in the Hollenbeck Division on the Eastside and now patrol it.
When Chacon, who has logged more than a quarter-century with the department, knocked on the apartment door, an elderly Latina gave him a warm greeting and a hug. They talked quietly about a gang member she said was causing trouble — hanging around outside at 2 a.m., selling drugs, making noise.
They chatted in Spanish, and she asked whether the officers planned to attend her friend’s funeral. Of course, they said.
“I am going to come back and haunt you if you don’t,” she said, teasing.
Chacon would be there — on his day off.
He knows what the neighborhood used to be like, when the gangs were in control; what it was like to be raised by immigrant parents.
Capt. Martin Baeza, who grew up in nearby Glassell Park, said officers who were raised in Hollenbeck and attended Roosevelt or Garfield high schools are lining up to work in the area. When officers understand the language and culture of the community, he believes, the public is less likely to read sinister intentions into their actions.
After reforms, progress yet lingering distrust
A 2009 Harvard University study found public opinions of the police to be much more positive since the reforms of the last consent decree were implemented, with 83% of residents saying the LAPD was doing a good or excellent job. Still, the study found pockets of distrust among black and Latino residents. When asked whether police treat all racial and ethnic groups fairly, 23% of black respondents said “almost never,” compared with 14% of Latinos and 10% of whites.
Lee Sprewell, 28, a black FedEx driver, said he remains distrustful of the LAPD. He cited several incidents, including one last summer when two white officers pulled him over in his new Dodge Charger while he returned from a night out.
He said that they demanded to know whether he was on probation or whether there was a warrant out for his arrest. When he asked why they had stopped him, he recalled, the officers noted that he had paper plates and said that they wanted to check his registration. Then, according to Sprewell, the officers claimed they smelled marijuana.
Sprewell told them that he did not smoke and that his employer conducts routine drug tests.
Whether they are white, black or Latino, Sprewell said, officers act the same way. “They all have the same mind-set,” he said.
Sgt. Jim Baker, who is black, is trying to break that image. Growing up in segregated Jackson, Miss., during the civil rights movement, Baker went to protests with his mother, who “showed me what was right and what was wrong,” he said. Baker said he decided to become a police officer to protect people’s rights.
Now 62 and approaching 30 years on the force, he is working for the Special Events Unit, which handles downtown protests and demonstrations.
The day before Thanksgiving, Baker was standing outside LAPD headquarters, keeping an eye on protesters who had gathered to rally against the Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer who shot Michael Brown. A young woman came up to Baker. The woman, he said, told him that his work as a police officer made him racist and called him an “Uncle Tom.”
“You are a black man,” she said, pointing a finger at Baker. “You are kept down by your race, even if you won’t accept it. That is a fact.”
“That’s opinion,” Baker replied, before adding: “I respect your opinion.”
Staff writer Ben Poston contributed to this report.