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A Lingering Shoot-First Culture

February 10, 2005

It's going to take more than a new police policy on shooting at moving vehicles to prevent another tragedy like the one Sunday that cost the life of 13-year-old Devin Brown. The uproar over the shooting is not about cops firing at cars. It's about the Los Angeles Police Department's long-troubled relationship with the city's African American community.

Officer Steve Garcia shot and killed the black youth, whom police alleged drove a Toyota Camry through a red light, led Garcia and his partner on a four-minute chase, skidded up on a sidewalk, then backed into the patrol car. A 14-year-old companion was arrested and charged with auto theft.

The shooting is under investigation. Current LAPD policy allows officers to fire at a moving vehicle only if it poses a mortal threat to them or others. Police Chief William J. Bratton had promised a year ago to tighten that tough standard after officers fatally shot a 23-year-old driver following a 90-minute chase that ended in Santa Monica.

Perhaps new tools would help, such as spike strips that puncture tires. But what seems really at issue is judgment, and that is dictated by a culture that implicitly supports shooting first and asking questions later.

The reasons for this aggressive culture are not as simple as either the department's defenders or detractors make them out to be.

Like so many institutions, the LAPD has a history of racism. Just ask former Chief Bernard C. Parks, now a city councilman and a candidate for mayor. When as a young black officer he was promoted to captain in 1977, his car was vandalized in the police lot and covered with racial epithets.

The LAPD has made progress since then, both within its ranks and in its relationship with the black community. More resistant to change, though, is a culture in which a perpetually understaffed LAPD sees itself as the thin blue line trying to maintain order amid chaos. In high-crime areas like South L.A., officers appear to project forcefulness to make up for what they lack in numbers.

Los Angeles' African American community reads such posturing to mean that LAPD officers are convinced that everyone with dark skin is a dangerous gangbanger. This mutual fear and suspicion is self-perpetuating.

Bratton argues that hiring more cops would give officers more backup and reduce their need to put on a tough face. Yet South Los Angeles, arguably the part of the city that most needs additional police officers, in November helped defeat a countywide sales tax increase that would have gone toward hiring them. Black leaders spoke Wednesday against placing a similar measure on the city ballot in May.

"Black people fear the police as much as they fear the gangs," one speaker told the City Council. "In fact, the LAPD is considered the biggest gang in the city."

One place to look for ways to change this culture of aggression and suspicion is East Los Angeles, which overwhelmingly supported the countywide effort to hire more police officers despite similar concerns about racial profiling. Can any lessons be learned from church and other groups' efforts there to improve relations between officers and the Latino community?

Sunday's shooting wiped out years of progress in rebuilding relations after the Rodney King beating. Bratton has no choice but to start over, and leaders of the black community have no choice but to work with him.

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