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Same old LAPD?

Charges of police racism may be an echo of the past, but a propensity for overreaction is clearly present.

June 01, 2007

THE LAPD'S PRELIMINARY report on what went wrong May 1 in MacArthur Park reinforces deep concern about the culture and capability of the department. Despite the emphasis placed on "agitators" who police say attacked them with rocks and bottles, this week's presentations to the Police Commission and the City Council underscored a shocking breakdown in managing and protecting the crowd of about 6,000 people gathered in the park for an immigration rights rally. With state-of-the-art communications technology, why was it so hard for command staff and officers to communicate? With such a strong focus over the last five years on policy and procedure, why were there so many procedural failures?

There is plenty of room for constructive debate about how best to keep the LAPD on the road toward reforming its culture and improving its service. But the criticism leveled at the department over the last month -- allegations of racist cops, contempt toward the news media -- may be part of a dated critique, targeting a now-vanishing police culture while tragically missing the persistent problems that plague today's department.

For example, Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez suggested soon after the incident that officers purposely guided agitators into the main crowd so they could take "target practice" at immigrants. Similar, though less inflammatory, claims were leveled by elected officials and members of the public this week. The LAPD clearly has as part of its heritage a racial animus unbefitting police officers entrusted with defending the law and the Constitution, so such allegations are not mere fantasies. Incidents of "driving while black" persist; racial profiling remains a concern. There still may be some racist cops, and a full probe into the May 1 meltdown should be expected to identify and remove from the department's ranks any who saw that event as an opportunity to express their prejudices. But more than half of LAPD officers are now members of racial minority groups. The days of an all-white force patrolling a multiethnic Los Angeles are history.

It is at least as likely that the department, despite better diversity, improved training and a fading culture of bigotry, is still too quick to resort to force in the face of recalcitrance or flight. That, rather than racism, was at the core of the injurious and costly police action seven years ago during the Democratic National Convention. And that was in part what Los Angeles had come to believe Chief William J. Bratton was eliminating. The final report on MacArthur Park should outline just how far he has yet to go before yesterday's LAPD is truly part of the past.

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