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Change has come to the LAPD too

The department openly recognizes previous racial failings and has moved to improve staffing and community relations. Now it's D.C.'s turn.

January 21, 2009|TIM RUTTEN

With so much of the nation's attention understandably focused on President Obama's inauguration, it was inevitable that a local event of great significance, the Los Angeles Police Department's First Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast, went all but overlooked Monday. It deserves to be noted, though, because such a celebration of the civil rights leader's birthday would have been unthinkable on several counts just a few years ago.

LAPD Chief William J. Bratton said the event was designed to celebrate "what I believe is the emerging new relationship between the LAPD and the city's African American community -- a relationship built on trust and respect as opposed to a history of mistrust, discord and strained relationships." That candor about the past ran through the entire event, which was attended by nearly every significant black leader from Los Angeles who hadn't been able to get a room in Washington.

The stunning highlight of the morning was a video commissioned by the LAPD. It's a concisely forthright exposition on the history of American race relations and the LAPD's sad role in them. Even the department's revered, iconic chief, William Parker, stands exposed as the racist he was. (For somebody who has dealt with the LAPD for more than three decades, it was a bit like being invited to a Knights of Columbus pancake breakfast and being shown a film critical of Pope Pius XII.)

It's funny how the reality of change seems to be empowering us all to consider our mutually painful history so honestly. Looking around the breakfast at USC's Town and Gown on Monday, it was hard not to notice that change in the people wearing the blue uniforms.

Just over a decade ago, the LAPD still was more than 80% white. Today, the force looks a lot more like the city: 40.7% of its officers are Latino, 38% are white, 12% are black, 6.7% are Asian and 2.6% are "other," including Native Americans. About 1,800 officers -- nearly 19% of the force -- are women. The senior command staff -- deputy chiefs and above -- is made up of six white men, three Latinos, two African Americans and one Asian. There are two women, including the deputy chief who oversees training.

What's most important, though, is not simply demographic change for the sake of change, nor even to conform to standards of equal opportunity. What's significant is the way in which the current LAPD has used equal opportunity as part of a comprehensive community policing strategy that has helped push crime down toward historic lows.

Over the last six years, homicides have fallen 41.2%, rapes by 37.3%, aggravated assaults by 63% and robberies by 21.8%. Crimes against property -- from burglary to auto theft -- have fallen by 27.4% during that same period. Even gang-related crimes are down strikingly over the period: homicides by 53%, carjackings by 45% and shots fired into houses or apartments by 65.8%. Last year, L.A. had fewer violent crimes than in any year since 1967 and the fewest property crimes since 1959.

By any measure that's change worth celebrating, even if there are many factors that helped get us there. Demonstrably more secure streets pay what might be called an urban peace dividend by encouraging more and better economic activity, thereby promoting prosperity, which creates more opportunity, which further pushes down crime. What's more, our ability to identify the city's remaining islands of insecurity increases, along with the ability to concentrate limited resources on lifting the injustice of insecurity from the shoulders of those for whom its oppression persists.

One of the merits of the new-style community policing Bratton brought to L.A. is its implicit understanding that real civic peace is secured not simply by the absence of violence but by the presence of justice.

One of the places where the cumulative effect of the LAPD's change most urgently needs to be recognized is at the Department of Justice in Washington. Back in 2000, during the Clinton administration, Eric H. Holder Jr. -- Obama's attorney general nominee -- was one of the Justice Department lawyers most responsible for forcing L.A. officials to sign a consent decree requiring reforms to end the LAPD's "pattern and practice" of violating people's civil rights. That agreement, which compelled the department to institute sweeping reforms and to regularly demonstrate its progress to a federal monitor and judge, was one of the most consequential in the city's history. You can draw a straight, bright line from it through Bratton's appointment and on to Monday's remarkable breakfast.

Recently, however, many who supported the agreement and its steady implementation -- including this writer -- have come to suspect that the federal judge and the monitor are insisting on something close to unattainably perfect policing, rather than simply an equal application of the laws (which is a tough enough proposition). It may take Holder's leadership to remind all those involved that the consent decree was meant to be an instrument of reform, not a form of permanent federal receivership. If the government refuses to lift it, it can never be deemed a success.

It would be gratifying indeed if the LAPD and the community it serves could celebrate next year's Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast by noting that one of the changes in Washington was to acknowledge the change in Los Angeles.

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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