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Baca vs. Bratton

June 14, 2008|TIM RUTTEN

As The Times reported Friday, Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Bratton and Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca "are increasingly at odds" over the role racial hatred plays in fomenting gang violence.

In an essay published on this page Thursday, Baca wrote, "We have a serious interracial violence problem in this county involving blacks and Latinos." The sheriff called the situation a crisis and alleged that conflict between gangs is increasingly motivated by race.

Bratton and his command staff continue to insist that although gang killings, like all homicides, are up, only one in 10 involves a killer and victim of different races.

So who is right?

Actually, they both are, though their perspectives are radically different. Baca is speaking as an elected official who understands that even a handful of high-profile, racially tinged killings can constitute a political crisis. He also draws much of his perspective from his department's supervision of the county jails, where warfare between racial gangs is horrifyingly endemic. Bratton is speaking as an appointed manager whose reliance on quantitative accountability has made L.A. a demonstrably safer place. Earlier this year, when black leaders raised concerns about two shootings in which Latino gang members targeted African Americans, he seemed puzzled by their alarm. After all, the numbers show that race seldom is a factor in gang shootings, even on the city's meanest streets.

So if Baca and Bratton both are -- in their own ways -- substantially correct on the question's merits, which one of them is addressing the issue in an appropriate fashion? In other words, are we better served by Baca's rhetoric or Bratton's reticence?

The small numbers of racially motivated gang killings that do occur are a source of particular concern in the African American community. In part that's because there is a long, somber history in this country of blacks being singled out for bigoted violence. In larger measure, it's because in L.A., most documented gang violence in which race has been a factor involves Latinos perpetrating what amounts to ethnic cleansing against their African American neighbors.

Bratton's initial response to expressions of these concerns was -- in terms of this city -- politically tone-deaf. However, unlike his predecessors, Bratton is a chief who listens and learns, and anyone who doesn't see the difference that has made just isn't looking. One of the lessons he might take from this controversy is that people's perception of their security, and not the crime statistics, set the political context in which his department's policies ultimately are judged.

That said, the sheriff needs to parse his contribution to the discussion a little more judiciously and, in particular, ought not to project the genuinely poisonous racial atmosphere in the jails onto the community as a whole. Baca deserves a lot of credit for developing and funding programs that address racial animosity and other social pathologies -- particularly domestic violence -- in the jails. It simply isn't true, however, that Los Angeles is in the grip of a "crisis" of racially motivated gang violence. Every instance of racial violence is intolerable, but it's reckless to suggest they're more numerous than they are.

Overstating the frequency of any sort of racially motivated violence risks turning the unacceptable incidents that do occur into political symbols that easily can be manipulated by those with something other than the common good in mind. We've already seen something like that occur in the tragic case of Jamiel Shaw II, the Los Angeles High School student shot to death steps from his front door, allegedly by a gang member.

Shaw was black, and his accused assailant is a Latino immigrant in the country illegally. The murder has become the centerpiece of a move to essentially repeal the LAPD's Special Order 40, which states that "officers shall not initiate police action with the objective of discovering the alien status of a person." Backers of "Jamiel's Law" insist that the alleged killer, who was released from jail shortly before Shaw was killed, would have been held and deported had Special Order 40 not been in force. One of the problems with this conclusion is that the accused assailant never was in LAPD custody. He was arrested by the Culver City police and released by the Sheriff's Department.

Neither of those facts has kept Shaw's death from assuming a symbolic importance in the vocal campaign against the order by the usual anti-immigrant forces. If that campaign were to become "racialized" with black leaders lining up on one side and Latino leaders on the other, things could become ugly very quickly.

The voices of Los Angeles' top cops must be raised against that possibility, but Bratton needs to speak up a little more clearly and with a little more heart, while Baca needs to speak more softly and with greater care.


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