A kinder, gentler LAPD?

Today’s question: Have relations between the LAPD and South L.A. residents improved? What about other cities and their police departments? Previously, Hutchinson and Hicks debated the quality of South L.A.'s political leadership.

Unfinished business
Point: Earl Ofari Hutchinson

In the past, the Los Angeles Police Department had a justifiable national reputation as the poster department for murderous and abusive treatment of African Americans and Latinos. During its big, bad years, the LAPD was in every sense an occupying army in South L.A. Officers went where they pleased, did what they pleased and cracked heads when they pleased, all with the blind-eye acquiescence of city officials. Two massive riots, the Rodney King beating, the Rampart scandal, the Christopher and Webster commissions and a federal consent decree all made it obvious that the LAPD had to change.

It has to an extent, and former LAPD Chief Bernard Parks and present Chief William Bratton deserve much credit for shaving off some of the worst of the department’s practices. But that doesn’t let the LAPD -- and with it the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and the Inglewood Police Department -- completely off the hook. All three departments patrol a big chunk of South L.A.

According to a statewide recent report, complaints of police abuse are at a near record high. In almost all cases, the complaints come from black or Latino residents. The Wild West-style shoot-up of an unarmed car-chase suspect by sheriff’s deputies in Compton in 2005 and the Inglewood Police Department’s recent killings of 19-year-old Michael Byoune and postal worker Kevin Wicks still show that far too many officers in South L.A. and surrounding areas are still too quick on the draw. In almost all cases, their victims are black or Latino.

The oft-used excuse for the tough policing, crime sweeps and even the disrespect many residents of South L.A. say the police routinely treat them with is the war against gangs. This is part fact and part self-serving myth. There is a serious gang problem, and many young people are killed by gang members. But that’s no excuse for police breaking the law to uphold the law. That’s no justification for police making few distinctions between hard-core gang members and young folk dressed in hip-hop attire who have committed no crimes and have no gang affiliation. It’s certainly no justification for abusive practices.

Bratton, Parks and other big-city police chiefs understand one thing: There’s no single issue that’s a bigger minefield in officer-minority tensions than unchecked and abusive police practices. When officers abuse their authority and trigger toothless investigations that inevitably result in complete exoneration, that sends the horrible message that police have an open license to beat, maim and even kill with absolutely no fear of punishment. Worse, it fatally poisons relations between police and minorities.

LAPD officials have worked hard to change that. But there is still much more work to be done before residents of South L.A. are totally convinced that the LAPD is really the kinder, gentler and protective police department that residents have always wanted.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is “The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House.”

What’s really eating South L.A.
Counterpoint: Joe R. Hicks

Earl, at least you and I agree on one thing: Abusing law-enforcement authority undermines the ability of police departments to develop something critical to maintaining law and order in all communities, including South Los Angeles.

I have publicly questioned the shootings of Byoune and Wicks and have called for a comprehensive investigation of these incidents. However, what has all too often been the predictable course of action is for community activists, craving relevance and driven by the cheap lure and sensationalism of easily accessed TV camera crews, to rail against the police before any facts emerge -- facts that may be inconvenient to some, but ones that matter. The knee-jerk reaction in nearly every such case is to reach back into history to refer to the LAPD (or other local police agencies) as jackbooted oppressors.

We all know the history of the LAPD and its historic record of abusive behavior toward minority residents. But even you admit that positive changes have occurred within the LAPD (as well as other large urban police departments nationally), especially regarding the use of force. Before Bratton’s tenure, the LAPD had back-to-back black chiefs in Willie Williams and Parks and today has more Latino officers than white officers. Combined with the more than 1,100 black officers and a growing number of female officers, the LAPD is a force of diverse racial and ethnic origins. Yet, it is still often referred to by activists as a racist force. Go figure. Bratton, the current chief, is a veteran of urban policing and has bent over backward to create the best possible relations with black elected officials, community leaders and clergy.

Something to which you give only the briefest mention is the extent to which crime and violence is an over-arching characteristic of South L.A.'s neighborhoods -- something that often forces violent confrontations with law enforcement. Is there any real disagreement over whether the police or dirt-bag gang members are the problem?

Last month, 8-year-old Jasmine Sanders was killed while playing behind an iron gate by a stairwell of her apartment building in South L.A. The suspected killer is believed to be a gang member who was shooting at rivals. This is an all too familiar story. In 2003, black victims made up 39% of the city’s 505 homicides, and 36% of the murder suspects were black -- although only 11% of the city’s population is black. Homicide detectives working in South L.A. see caseloads often 40% above their counterparts in other parts of the city. Witnesses are hard to come by because the penalty for “snitching” is often death.

One response from local elected officials, headed by City Council members Janice Hahn, Tony Cardenas, Jan Perry and (surprisingly) Parks was a toothless call last April for a 40-hour moratorium on gang violence, something the thugs quickly violated -- to the surprise of almost no one.

Much progress has been made since the days when Rodney King was beaten by a circle of LAPD officers. Let’s not give this such short shrift.

Finally, Earl, do not confuse predictability with consistency. Calling my critique of L.A.'s black leadership on Monday a “smackdown” is a cheap -- and false -- shot. Where sound leadership is exhibited, I support and praise it. Any failure of black leadership is not based on some cultural paralysis; in my view, it is based on flawed policy and practices that all too often are derived from identity politics.

Joe R. Hicks is vice president of Community Advocates Inc. and a KFI-AM (640) talk-show host. He is a former executive director of the Los Angeles City Human Relations Commission and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

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