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LAPD watchdog takes a long look into allegations of racial profiling

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Los Angeles police commissioners are meeting to discuss how the LAPD and other agencies investigate allegations of racial profiling and try to strengthen relationships with communities.

The Los Angeles Police Department knows it has a problem.

African Americans have significantly less trust in LAPD officers than other residents do. A new survey, commissioned by the department, found that less than half of black residents consider the police honest and trustworthy. Only a third believe officers treat people of all races or ethnicities fairly.

On Tuesday, police commissioners who oversee the department said they were struck by the disparity in how policing is perceived in Los Angeles. One said the results illuminated a “profoundly serious disconnect” between the LAPD and black Angelenos. Another commissioner said the survey underscored the need to improve public trust in police.

Their comments came during a commission meeting designed to take on one of the thorniest, most challenging issues facing police across the country, one that continues to frustrate both residents and officers: allegations of racial profiling.

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One by one, residents and community activists, both black and Latino, shared stories of moments they felt profiled by police. One man said he could count on both his fingers and toes the number of times it happened to him. A 19-year-old college student recalled being stopped by the same officer who asked the same questions: “Where are you going? Do you have anything you shouldn’t have?”

Several activists warned against dismissing the concerns as merely a perception rather than a reality that had long been felt by non-white residents, in particular African Americans.

“They fear the police,” said the Rev. K.W. Tulloss, president of the local chapter of the National Action Network. “They fear interacting with the police because of racial profiling.”

It was an unusual move by the Police Commission, devoting its entire weekly meeting to a single topic. But, commissioners said, it was an important conversation to have.

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“I know that everyone will not agree 100% with everything they hear today. We all bring a different set of perspectives and experiences to the table,” Matt Johnson, the board’s president, said as he opened the meeting. “But I see that as an opportunity for renewed dialogue, not a barrier to the work that remains to be done.”

Accusations of racial profiling — what the LAPD calls biased policing — are difficult to prove, as they hinge on what an officer is thinking when he or she stops someone.

Los Angeles police usually receive a few hundred complaints of biased policing each year, largely from African Americans. None have been upheld, a number that has become more glaring in recent years as residents and police commissioners continue to voice their concerns.

LAPD officials surveyed 10 other police departments ahead of Tuesday’s meeting and found only three — San Diego, San Jose and Washington, D.C. — had upheld such allegations since 2011. Among those departments, only four allegations were proved.

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LAPD brass stress that they take the allegations seriously, noting again Tuesday that the department tried to fire an officer a few years ago after investigators determined he stopped Latino drivers based on their ethnicity. However, a disciplinary panel found that officer not guilty of the biased policing allegations and fired him on a different charge.

What investigators can more easily prove is “observable behavior that may be indicative of bias,” said Cmdr. Stuart Maislin, who heads the LAPD’s internal affairs section. He pointed to other allegations the department has upheld — that officers made ethnically disparaging remarks, were discourteous or showed “unbecoming conduct” — that may reflect a larger concern.

Police Chief Charlie Beck said the department also takes steps to screen potential recruits for bias and train officers to ensure bias does not affect how they police. He said he believed the majority of officers “do their job to the best of their abilities, free from bias.”

“Do I think that biased policing is rampant? Absolutely not,” he told reporters after the meeting. “Do I think it occurs? Of course it does.”

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Peter Bibring, director of police practices at the American Civil Liberties Union of California, said LAPD data show that African Americans have been stopped at a much higher rate than whites.

In the first half of 2014, 32% of pedestrians stopped by LAPD officers were black, 48% were Latino and 17% were white, according to the most recent figures available on the department’s website. Among drivers who were stopped, 21% were black, 44% were Latino and 23% were white. The city’s population is about 10% black, 48% Latino and 29% white.

“The department conducts an incredible number of stops,” Bibring told the commission. “An incredible weight of policing is falling on black and brown communities.”

Beck cautioned against interpreting the figures without accounting for factors such as crime rates and economic conditions.

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“There has to be a much deeper analysis than that,” he said.

Included in a 143-page report the LAPD prepared for the meeting were the results of the survey, a 2,000-person poll conducted earlier this year to gauge public attitudes about crime, safety and policing in Los Angeles. Those findings illuminated stark differences in how police are perceived across Los Angeles.

Among the African Americans surveyed, 47% said they considered police honest and trustworthy, compared with roughly 74% of white residents, almost 71% of Latinos and about 67% of Asians. Less than a third of African Americans agreed that LAPD officers used force only when absolutely necessary, according to the survey. Just over half of the total residents surveyed agreed.

Less than half of all residents, or 49.7%, agreed that LAPD officers treated people of all races and ethnicities fairly. More than a third disagreed.

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Commissioner Cynthia McClain-Hill questioned whether LAPD brass was doing enough to address the concerns. Officials said they were expanding existing programs to try to improve trust in the LAPD, including one that assigns officers to housing projects and another, called Days of Dialogue, in which residents have roundtable talks with police.

“These concerns and issues about racial profiling, about implicit bias and biased policing have been with us for a very long time. Days of Dialogue, I know, have been going on for a good part of my adult lifetime,” McClain-Hill said. “Doing more of the same, given where we are, may not be enough.”

Beck said the results of the survey weren’t a surprise, given the 40 years he’s spent policing Los Angeles. The goal, he said, was to develop a baseline that the LAPD could use to measure progress in the future.

McClain-Hill, who called for the discussion earlier this fall, said after the meeting that it “significantly illuminated some of the work to be done.”

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Alfonso Aguilar, the 19-year-old college student who spoke about being stopped by the same police officer, agreed that it was a good first step.

Aguilar, a member of the Community Coalition of South L.A., told commissioners that in South L.A., where he was born and raised, police are seen as a dominating force, one out of touch with the people they are sworn to protect.

In an interview, Aguilar said that when he initially walked into the meeting, seeing a large group of police officers in the room made him so nervous he walked out. He ran to a bathroom to splash water on his face before returning.

After he spoke to the commission, however, he said he came to appreciate how many officers were there.

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“The more I think about it, the more I’m glad the room was filled with officers,” he said. “So they can understand how people feel.”

Times staff writer James Queally contributed to this report.

kate.mather@latimes.com

cindy.chang@latimes.com

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For more law enforcement news, follow us on Twitter: @katemather and @cindychangLA

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UPDATES:

8:00 p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments from Beck and a police commissioner after the meeting as well as some more details from the hearing and on police stops.

1:55 p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments form attendees at the meeting.

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11:55 a.m.: This article was updated with additional comments from speakers at the commission meeting.

10:45 a.m.: This article was updated with comments made during the opening of the L.A. Police Commission meeting.

This article was originally published at 3 a.m.


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