More than half of the searches conducted by Los Angeles gang officers on people they stopped last summer were potentially unconstitutional, according to a report released Friday by the department’s Office of the Inspector General that examined a sample of 91 cases.
The report analyzed vehicle, pedestrian and bicycle stops by the Los Angeles Police Department’s Gang Enforcement Detail in July and August 2018, using videos from body-worn and dashboard cameras to assess the officers’ statements and actions.
If stops and searches are perceived to be made without cause or if officers do not explain what they are doing, the community’s trust in the police department can suffer, according to the report.
In making initial stops, most officers met constitutional standards, the inspector general found.
But in cases where the officers then searched people or vehicles, the report found that 54% of the searches may have violated the Constitution or had other problems, such as lack of documentation.
Sometimes, officers needed consent for the search and did not obtain it, the report says. Other times, the officers used overly broad justifications for the search, such as that people in a group were gang members or on probation.
The report also notes that in about a quarter of the 91 stops, gang officers never explained to the person why he or she was being stopped.
In a “significant number” of cases, officers provided no explanation even after the person was ordered to stand up against a wall, handcuffed and searched.
That lack of explanation “may contribute to a perception that officers are stopping and searching members of the community for no reason, as the result of racial profiling, or due to some other prohibited basis,” the report states.
In response to the inspector general’s findings, the LAPD has implemented new training for gang officers and issued a department-wide email reminding officers of 4th Amendment standards for stops, the report notes.
“While the overwhelming majority of citizen police encounters had no issues, clearly other incidents did not meet our expectations,” LAPD spokesman Josh Rubenstein said in a written statement, adding that the department has taken “swift action” to address the report’s findings.
The Police Commission, the civilian board that oversees the LAPD, requested the report as part of an examination of stops performed by units that focus on “proactive” policing, where officers initiate contacts with the public rather than responding to radio calls.
A second report, expected to come out late this year, will focus on the LAPD’s elite Metropolitan Division, which began performing large numbers of stops after expanding in 2015 as part of a crime-suppression strategy. A Times investigation found that Metro officers stopped black drivers at a rate more than five times their population.
The gang enforcement units are successors to the LAPD’s infamous CRASH gang units, which were renamed and restructured after the Rampart scandal in the late 1990s involving more than a dozen officers and allegations of improper shootings, evidence planting and false arrests.
The federal consent decree that followed the scandal was directed in part at what the U.S. Department of Justice described as a pattern of stops without reasonable suspicion and searches with insufficient cause.
To legally stop a driver, pedestrian or bicyclist, officers must have reasonable suspicion or probable cause that a crime was committed.
That crime can be as minor as jaywalking or a broken tail light. Officers can also stop people they believe are on parole or wanted for a crime.
The inspector general’s report found that about 85% of the 91 stops it examined were reasonable. In one stop flagged as a potential problem, two men were suspected of trespassing and loitering when they were on the sidewalk sitting on an apartment building planter.
In 29 cases in which officers conducted a search, at least one of the justifications they provided did not appear accurate or was otherwise flawed, according to the report.
In one case, officers listed their reason for searching two juveniles as “gang members in gang area known to carry weapons,” when one of the juveniles said he was not in a gang. Those same officers listed a similar justification for searches of 12 other people that day, which the report said gave rise “to a concern about canned language.”
In some cases in which there was no legal basis for the search but the officers sought permission, they went ahead even though the person had not said yes, according to the report.
In multiple cases, the report says, officers asked a question such as, “You don’t have any weapons on you, do you?” then patted down or search the person without asking for consent. Other times, the officers searched the person without asking any questions.
The 91 stops in the report were a sample consisting of an almost equal number of black, Latino and white males who were stopped. Some stops included multiple people.