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51% of Riot Arrests Were Latino, Study Says : Unrest: RAND analysis of court cases finds they were mostly young men. The figures are open to many interpretations, experts note.

June 18, 1992|PAUL LIEBERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A majority of people charged with crimes in the recent Los Angeles riots were Latino--most of them young men--according to the first statistical breakdown of court cases stemming from the unrest.

A RAND Corp. computer analysis of charges filed in local courts in the peak days of the riots found that 51% of the defendants were Latino and 36% were black.

Although unrest among blacks in South Los Angeles after the verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating case apparently led to the start of the riots, by far the biggest single group of eventual offenders were Latino men from 18 to 24 years old, accounting for 30% of the arrests, the analysis determined.

"This was clearly not a black riot. It was a minority riot," said RAND criminologist Joan Petersilia, who examined data on more than 5,000 cases processed through the Los Angeles Municipal Court system.

The ongoing study--the preliminary findings of which were released Wednesday--also found that arrests for curfew violations and other "civil disturbance" offenses outnumbered those for looting.

But the racial and ethnic breakdowns are certain to be the most analyzed part of the data as it is used to answer a fundamental question: Who were the rioters?

Arrest statistics previously released by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department showed that slightly more Latinos than blacks, 45% to 41%, were picked up by law enforcement agencies in the county between April 29 and May 5.

While those statistics were not limited to riot cases, they reflected heavy Latino involvement in the unrest. This was generally attributed to the Latino population plurality in Los Angeles and to widespread looting in their impoverished neighborhoods, such as the Pico-Union district.

The RAND study--showing an even larger gap in arrests among Latinos and blacks--focuses on the same time period but uses a different sample, the 5,633 adults arrested and held for arraignment on felony or misdemeanor charges within the Los Angeles Judicial District. The district, which includes courts from downtown to Van Nuys, handles 47% of the criminal cases in the county but does not include several courthouses--in Compton, Inglewood and Long Beach--that also processed riot cases.

While the data therefore is incomplete and "somewhat squishy," Petersilia said, it was by far the most detailed available on the riots.

Petersilia, former president of the American Society of Criminology, said the Santa Monica-based think tank filtered the cases in an attempt to identify those related to the riots, spotlighting arrests for curfew violations and other "civil disturbance" crimes, along with those for burglary and other "property" crimes stemming from the looting.

Petersilia compared arrests during the riots to those normally made by the Los Angeles Police Department and found percentages that were far higher than usual for blacks and Latinos. Anglos, meanwhile, accounted for only 11% of the arrests during the riot period--down from 42% in normal times.

The RAND analyst noted, however, that such findings are open to numerous interpretations. The high number of Latino arrests, for instance, could "reflect the group's participation in the riot (or) a general failure to flee or resist arrest," a RAND statement said.

But Petersilia offered another theory for the high proportion of Latino arrests. It is possible, she said, that police may have steered away from arresting black men for fear of provoking confrontations.

When it came to women, she said, more blacks than Latinas were arrested. It was only in arrests of the men that the disparity emerged, with far more Latinos taken into custody.

One explanation might be "the black male looked like a very volatile population. . . . (Police) stayed away from them," Petersilia said.

But a Los Angeles police spokesman on Wednesday contested the theory.

"No, I don't buy that," said Lt. John Duncan. "In those (riot) circumstances, you catch who you can. Who knows? (But) I don't buy into any conscious decision" to arrest one group more than another.

Duncan attributed the high Latino arrest totals to simple demographics--Latinos are the largest group in Los Angeles, according to census figures, making up 39% of the city's population and narrowly outnumbering blacks in South Los Angeles. Anglos account for 37% of the total populace and blacks 13%.

Among the other findings of the RAND analysis:

* Blacks who were arrested tended to be older than Latinos arrested, with the greatest number between 25 and 34.

* Although women usually make up 14% of those arrested in Los Angeles, they accounted for only 12% of the riot sample. Black women were charged in equal numbers with curfew and looting violations. But Latinas were twice as likely to be arrested for looting as for staying out after curfew or for other "civil disturbances."

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