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Which is the true LAPD?

October 24, 2008

Given the Los Angeles Police Department's historically troubled relationship with black and brown communities, it's tempting to brandish a recent report about the disparity between how frequently minorities are stopped and arrested compared with whites and use it as proof of ongoing discrimination. Tempting, but wrong. The data for the report, analyzed by a Yale economist at the request of the American Civil Liberties Union, certainly provoke questions about policing in minority neighborhoods, but they don't convict the department of widespread racial profiling.

The study found that LAPD officers are more likely to stop, frisk and arrest minorities than they are whites. It also found that officers were less likely to find weapons or drugs on blacks or Latinos during these searches, implying that the searches were unfounded. That sounds damning, and maybe it is. But an analysis of the same data conducted by a Times staff member put the information in a broader context. Yes, officers stop minorities more often, but the number of searches closely correlates with the number of crimes committed in a given police reporting district -- an area about the size of a census tract. Without more information, it's impossible to determine whether officers are stopping people solely because of race, or -- as blacks and Latinos are more likely to live in districts with higher crime rates -- because officers are working higher numbers of cases.

Chief William J. Bratton is adamant that the report is flawed; the 4-year-old data used do not provide an up-to-date snapshot of the LAPD and its reforms, he says. That the department makes an effort to discourage disparate treatment is clear. Recruits are questioned about their racial attitudes during mandatory polygraph tests; officers are trained in racial sensitivity and monitored by cameras mounted in patrol cars. Perhaps most important, today's LAPD is far more diverse than it was just a decade ago. As a result, its relations with minority communities have undeniably improved.

That being said, the LAPD does have a history of profiling, but it is in statistical denial of that fact. Not one of the 320 profiling complaints filed last year was validated by the department, nor were any of those filed in the five previous years. Blacks and Latinos are stopped and searched more frequently than whites, and few would deny the probability that some of those stops are unwarranted. After all, this is a relationship on the mend, not one that has fully healed.

The real problem seems to be that for all its efforts, the LAPD does not yet know how to detect and quantify disparate treatment. Ian Ayres, the professor who prepared the ACLU report, says he can help, and the department should take him up on his offer. The truth surely lies somewhere between the spotless image claimed by the department and the sullied one implied by the report.

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