WASHINGTON — Despite a rash of racially explosive episodes in recent years, blacks in Los Angeles voice overwhelming satisfaction with their local police, according to a survey released Thursday by the U.S. Justice Department.
In fact, although the survey of a dozen cities around the country found that blacks are less likely than whites to be satisfied with the police, the racial divide is smaller in Los Angeles than the average for all the cities.
The federal survey--the first of its kind in 20 years--found that 82% of blacks polled in the city of Los Angeles last year said they were satisfied with police serving their neighborhoods, compared with 89% of whites and 86% citywide. Nationwide, the overall satisfaction rate for all respondents was 85%.
The findings surprised experts and community activists in a city where minorities have clashed repeatedly with police over such controversies as the Rodney G. King beating, the 1992 riots, the O.J. Simpson trials, allegations of racial profiling and, in the most recent imbroglio, last month's fatal shooting by police of a homeless black woman.
"That's an impressive percentage," John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League, said of blacks' satisfaction level, "frankly, higher than I would have expected."
The findings are more perplexing still because the survey also found that Los Angeles' blacks, for all their positive attitudes toward police, said they were victims of violence nearly twice as often as whites.
The rate of violent crimes reported in Los Angeles--65 reports per 1,000 residents--was slightly lower than the national average. For L.A. blacks, however, there were 114 reports of violence per 1,000 residents.
Decline of 'Cowboy Mentality' Observed
The recent controversy over the shooting death of Margaret LaVerne Mitchell, the homeless woman killed by police two weeks ago, has exacerbated tensions between minorities and the Los Angeles Police Department, said Royce W. Esters, president of a Compton-based group called the National Assn. for Equal Justice in America.
"Lately, it seems like it's been them against us," he said.
The Justice Department survey would not reflect any impact of that incident because the study was conducted in 1998.
But other civic leaders said the survey's high levels of satisfaction with local police--across racial lines--may reflect the continuing decline in crime, better civilian police oversight, progress in community policing and improved leadership in the department, first under former Chief Willie L. Williams and now under his successor, Chief Bernard C. Parks.
Parks "is viewed as someone who will objectively investigate and review police problems," said Danny Bakewell of Los Angeles, president of a black activist group called the Brotherhood Crusade. "We don't have as many officers with that cowboy mentality like we did under [former] Chief Daryl Gates."
The Justice Department performs an annual survey on crime victimization nationwide, but Thursday's report was the first in 20 years to feature a more detailed analysis of selected cities, including Los Angeles, San Diego and 10 others. Nearly 14,000 people were surveyed over four months, including 1,121 people in Los Angeles. The poll, which had an overall margin of error of plus or minus 5 percentage points, broke down the results for blacks and whites, but not for other racial groups.
The survey revealed a far more positive attitude toward police from Los Angeles' black community than past polls have. A Los Angeles Times poll earlier this year, for example, found just a 48% approval rating for the LAPD among blacks.
The discrepancy may in large part reflect the different wording of the questions on the two surveys. The Justice Department survey asked respondents about their satisfaction with police in their own neighborhoods, while the Times survey asked about job performance of the LAPD in general--a distinction that often leads to differences in polls.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr., releasing the survey in Washington, said that--although he was encouraged by the positive attitudes toward law enforcement--he was troubled by the fact that 24% of blacks nationwide said they were dissatisfied with their local police. For whites, the figure was 10%.
Police officials should recognize that "there is still too great a gulf between the views of the minority community and white residents," he said. The gap was smaller in Los Angeles, with 18% of blacks and 11% of whites saying they were dissatisfied with the police.
Justice Department officials said they saw the survey results as a solid endorsement of community policing--an idea that is a favorite of Atty. Gen. Janet Reno in pushing for police to become more connected to the neighborhoods they serve.
Many residents in the 12 surveyed cities said they have noticed more of a presence by police in their communities through officers working with youth, attending community meetings or conducting more visible patrols.