The ongoing violence in Ferguson, Mo., is dismaying and — for those who have been in Los Angeles a long time — painfully familiar. As this city long ago learned, when the public loses trust in its police, many people suffer.
In Ferguson, a fatal confrontation between an officer of an overwhelmingly white police department and a young black man has led to more than a week of street protests because the community rejected the department’s explanation of events. In Los Angeles in 1992, acquittals of the officers who beat Rodney G. King touched off days of rioting for precisely the same reason. The parallels don’t end there, yet it seems that Missouri officials have refused to learn the lessons of Los Angeles’ experience. To name a few:
• More than two decades ago, civic leaders here grasped the importance of diversity on the police force. Today, the LAPD mirrors the city quite closely — Latinos are the department’s largest ethnic group, and blacks make up just over 10% of the force, roughly equivalent to their representation in the city. Ferguson’s force is almost entirely white — only three of 53 commissioned officers are black — even though the population of the city is two-thirds black. It is difficult for residents to trust a force that feels foreign.
• The riots forced deep reflection in Los Angeles over how police should best handle unruly crowds. The department today attempts neither to yield to violence nor to provoke it. It’s not always successful — by its own admission, its handling of a May Day rally in 2007 was cause for “great concern.” Still, the LAPD’s reputation for restraint in crowd control is generally deserved. By contrast, authorities in Ferguson responded to initial protests with heavy arms and tactics; the situation escalated rapidly.
• The LAPD, after some hesitation, now routinely releases the names of officers involved in shootings. That practice shows that police are accountable, too. In Ferguson, authorities withheld the officer’s name at first, convincing protesters that he was being protected.
The Los Angeles Police Department is far from perfect. Recent revelations about incorrectly categorized assaults have raised questions about the accuracy of its crime data, and last week’s shooting of a mentally ill black man serves as a reminder that violent confrontations remain a tragic fact of police work. But for police to maintain the support of residents when mistakes are made or civilians hurt, there must be trust, which is best won through a commitment to transparency, accountability and addressing shortcomings openly and honestly. That’s a lesson that’s still being learned here, and it’s what has been missing in Ferguson.
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