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The Changing Face of the LAPD

Once overwhelmingly white and male, its demographics now look more like the city's.

April 17, 2006|Jim Newton | Times Staff Writer

In more ways than one, a recent predawn roll call at the Los Angeles Police Department's 77th Street Division was emblematic of the profound changes that the LAPD has undergone in recent years.

As two dozen officers were briefed on crime in their area, they were aided by computerized maps showing hot spots in the division's neighborhoods, maps produced daily by a department far more sophisticated technologically than it was a decade ago. The room itself, meanwhile, offered other evidence of progress: It was a well-outfitted basement meeting space beneath an attractive station built around a palm-lined courtyard -- a far cry from 77th's old digs, once so dilapidated that city officials lopped off the top floor, put a barrier across what became known as the "stairway to nowhere," and then kept using what was left of the building.

Most telling, however, were the people themselves. Of the morning patrol officers who took their places on wooden benches -- some things don't change -- fewer than half were white. There were at least as many Hispanic officers as whites, and in the parking lot outside, an Asian woman rolled up behind the wheel of a patrol car as roll call was concluding. The briefing had been led by Sgt. Morris Batts, an African American, and the deputy chief listening from the back of the room was black as well.

"The department has struggled with becoming diverse, not just with how we look but how we act," said Deputy Chief Earl Paysinger, the LAPD's highest-ranking black officer. "Are we there yet? Hell, no, but we're getting there. We're on the road."

For the LAPD, the trip down that road began with the city's entry into a pair of affirmative action consent decrees -- agreements made to forestall lawsuits. The first came in 1980 and the second in 1992. (A third, in 1993, prohibited the LAPD from discriminating against gays and ordered it to recruit in the gay community.) Although less widely known than the 2001 decree that ordered reforms in the wake of the Rampart Division corruption scandal, the hiring and promotion rules have wrought extensive changes to the city's Police Department, literally transforming its face over the course of a generation.

In the years of Jack Webb and television's "Dragnet," the LAPD was a white man's department, and that had ramifications beyond just the work force. Relations with the black community, in particular, were notoriously bad, and riots in 1965 and 1992 featured many scenes of African American protesters clashing with a largely white police force.

The effects of white hegemony played out within the department too. When former Police Chief Daryl F. Gates was quoted as questioning whether blacks responded to chokeholds differently than "normal people," the predominantly white LAPD culture absorbed his gaffe into its lexicon. The department's signature cars, long known as "black and whites," were colloquially renamed "black and normals."

"The history of the relationship between the Police Department and African Americans is one of tension, conflict and frequently mutual mistrust," said John Mack, a longtime LAPD critic -- "I like to think of myself as a 'constructive critic,' " he emphasized last week. Mack is now president of the city's Police Commission.

In the early years of the last decade, when Mack was taking on the LAPD's reputation for brutality and the city was straggling back from the riots sparked by the acquittals of the officers who beat Rodney G. King, the Los Angeles Police Department was nearly two-thirds white. Nine out of ten officers were men and just one-fifth of the force responsible for protecting and serving a largely Latino city were of Hispanic origin.

Today, as that recent roll call suggests, the 9,314-officer LAPD is a different place. Like the city, it is less than half white; one in five officers is a woman, and Hispanics make up roughly a third of the department, with their representation even greater in the lower ranks, reflecting more recent hiring.

"Fifteen years ago, this department was dominated by white males," Mack said. "That picture clearly has changed dramatically."

In part, the LAPD's embrace of diversity has been under the threat of federal court intervention. The hiring and promotion goals for women and minorities are laid out in two of the half-dozen court-monitored mandates that set parameters on LAPD policies, from hiring and promotion to issuing handguns and regulating solicitations at LAX.

As with the decree struck after the Rampart scandal, the affirmative action measures are overseen by federal judges who can cite violators for contempt. Both remain in force today.

The first prohibits the city from discriminating against women and commits the LAPD to seeking to make them 20% of the force, a level that the department is roughly at today. The second decree grew out of a lawsuit in the early 1990s, and it provides the legal framework for the LAPD's system for recruiting and promoting blacks, Hispanics and women.

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