The Los Angeles Police Department has a history of struggling with race issues. With events like the 1992 riots, the Rampart scandal and allegations of corruption, the department has suffered major — and often self-inflicted — hits in public perception.
With each of these incidents, there is a corresponding hit in officers’ credibility. When people automatically distrust the policemen responsible for protecting them, that distrust can only disrupt the police officers’ abilities to do their duties.
This history and these issues come to mind when hearing about the first internal investigation in LAPD’s history, which the Los Angeles Times reported on March 27. The LAPD concluded that one of its officers was engaged in racial profiling. Officer Patrick Smith of the West Traffic Division was found to have targeted Latino drivers in traffic stops over his 15-year career.
This is, however, a different kind of scandal, one that could help the LAPD. It should be taken as an indication that the current LAPD system is not only working but willing to be transparent with the public — a major step toward rebuilding public perception.
The revelation shows a new dedication to addressing racial bias issues directly and publicly.
Yes — by itself, the news is bad. An LAPD officer has been targeting Latinos and altering paperwork to conceal his actions. The investigation confirms what many people already suspect: Racism is still a problem in the LAPD.
The important part of this story, however, is not Smith’s behavior, but rather his department’s behavior. The department is freely admitting that one of its own officers has been engaging in biased policing. It’s certainly not the easiest move on the department’s part, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.
A Yale study from 2008 stated that the department stopped Latinos and blacks at significantly higher rates than whites, regardless of neighborhood. Another study, conducted two years ago by the Los Angeles Police Commission, found issues in a third of internal investigations conducted by the department.
Through its admission, the department acknowledges that it has had thousands of accusations of racial profiling levied against it and failed to police itself well.
Leading the charge is Chief of Police Charlie Beck. After being appointed to the position in 2009, Beck created a unit that investigates claims of biased policing. His drive against racism spurred the investigation that caught Smith.
In all likelihood there are more cases of this kind of behavior beyond the one centered on Smith — the studies are there and the numbers are hard to argue against. Beck explains, however, that these can only be isolated cases and projecting the actions of some bad officers onto the entire force is a misguided action.
He’s right: In a force with almost 10,000 officers, there are always going to be some bad apples. It is the responsibility of the department to watch out for them and deal with them accordingly.
The first successful investigation and admission shows that the new system for oversight is doing its job.
Yes, this revelation by the department that racial profiling has been occurring serves as validation to those that have been claiming that this has been happening for a long time.
It also reveals a department committed to fighting these isolated cases and developing a new level of trust with the community.
Daniel Grzywacz is a sophomore majoring in neuroscience and anthropology. His column “72 Degrees and Shaking” runs Wednesdays.