Mayor Eric Garcetti has ordered Los Angeles police to scale back on vehicle stops in response to an investigation by the Los Angeles Times showing that an elite unit was pulling over a disproportionate number of African Americans.
In a written statement Wednesday, Garcetti said he is “deeply concerned” about The Times’ findings that Metropolitan Division officers stop black drivers at a rate more than five times their share of the population.
Pointing to decreases in homicides and violent crimes last year, Garcetti said that progress in fighting crime needs to come with gains in public trust. He said that reducing vehicle stops, which are perceived by some black residents as racially discriminatory, in favor of other policing techniques will help to build that trust.
“I have directed the Chief of Police to prioritize other elements of our comprehensive crime reduction strategy, beyond vehicle stops, until we learn more — so that we can accelerate the reduction in vehicle stops that has been achieved since they peaked a couple of years ago,” Garcetti said in the statement. “We have made our streets safer with fewer vehicle stops than in recent years, and we have to keep prioritizing what works to both stop crime and strengthen trust.”
On Tuesday, citing the Times investigation, civil rights and community groups called on Garcetti to withdraw Metro from South L.A.
The groups, which include the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and Community Coalition, are also asking for more youth programs, mental health services and community policing.
“The deployment of the Metropolitan Division has failed to address safety in communities like South Los Angeles, but rather has led to the incarceration and harassment of African American and Latino people,” they wrote in a Feb. 5 letter to Garcetti, LAPD Chief Michel Moore and the five-member civilian Police Commission that oversees the LAPD.
Since Garcetti announced in 2015 that Metro would double in size to combat an increase in violent crime, the number of vehicle stops by its officers has skyrocketed from a few thousand to nearly 60,000 last year.
Garcetti and Moore have cited the Metro expansion as a key component in the city’s crime fighting strategy.
Unlike regular patrol officers, Metro crime suppression officers, who numbered about 270 last year, often spend their shifts on vehicle stops and other “proactive” policing tactics intended to root out violent criminals.
They typically use a minor violation such as a broken tail light as a starting point to question the driver and potentially get inside the car — a type of stop known as a pretextual stop.
LAPD spokesman Josh Rubenstein said in a statement: “We look forward to meeting with the leaders who make up the Community Coalition to address their concerns identified over strategies we employ to combat violent crime.”
Other crime suppression strategies used by Metro include investigative follow-ups, apprehending suspects involved in violent crime and foot patrols in neighborhoods impacted by street level crime, Rubenstein said.
“We understand the delicate balance between our enforcement posture and our steadfast commitment to building relationships, engaging the community and enhancing public trust,” he said. “Identifying and arresting individuals who are responsible for gun violence remains a top priority as in the days ahead we expand our strategies beyond the typical crime suppression tactics involving vehicle stops in our most violence impacted neighborhoods.”
The Times investigation found that nearly half the drivers stopped by Metro were black. That has helped drive up the share of African Americans stopped by the LAPD overall from 21% to 28% since the Metro expansion, in a city that is 9% black.
In South L.A., which is 31% black, 65% of the drivers stopped by Metro were black.
Last week, in response to the Times findings, Garcetti called for an audit of Metro stops. A similar audit by the LAPD’s Office of Inspector General was already in the works and is expected to be released late this year.
Alberto Retana, president and CEO of Community Coalition, said the Times findings were “gut-wrenching” because they confirmed the feelings of black residents who say that police are targeting them because of their race.
The Times investigation did not prove that officers were engaging in racial profiling, but civil rights advocates have said the disparities are too great to fully be explained by other factors, such as the demographics of high-crime areas.
“To see that echoed in the L.A. Times is cause for alarm, but there is also an opportunity for the LAPD to do something different and change its practices and stop its targeting of African Americans in the city,” Retana said.
Melanie Ochoa, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, said that Metro’s mission in South L.A., with officers driving around looking for people who might have guns or drugs, means that “harassment and targeted policing are baked into the way it operates.”
Citing a report about the LAPD’s Gang Enforcement Details released by the inspector general last week, she questioned whether stopping motorists and pedestrians is an effective way to fight crime. That report found that in more than half the stops examined during a two-month period last summer where people were subsequently searched, the searches may have been unconstitutional.
“They like to claim a straight line from these tactics to a reduction in crime, but we don’t know if it’s actually borne out in practice,” she said.
Steve Soboroff, president of the Police Commission, said he called Retana after receiving the letter and plans to discuss the issue with him.
Whether to pull Metro out of South L.A. is beyond his purview as a police commissioner, he said. But he hopes to learn more from Retana about what programs residents need and how to win the trust of those who are suspicious of the police.
“We get calls all the time from people saying we need a lot more cops, and we get calls from people saying we need less,” Soboroff said. “What’s important is why people feel that way and what we can do to mitigate their feelings and earn their trust.”
Police Commissioner Shane Murphy Goldsmith said she supports more community policing and youth programs, which she believes will address the root causes of crime.
She said she is not prepared to call for Metro to withdraw from South L.A. until the inspector general releases his findings.