Diversity Bolsters the LAPD
Force nearly matches ethnic makeup of city as police gain trust of minority communities
EDITOR'S NOTE: This appeared as an Editorial in the LA Daily News, and congratulated the LAPD for significant improvements made over the last several years. It refers to a recently completed Harvard Report that we presented here on LA Community Policing (see: Harvard Report). Do you think LAPD's doing well as it diversifies? What else would you suggest?
May 24, 2009
As the Los Angeles Police Department enjoys a resurgence of its public approval, one of the key factors has been a sharp increase in the diversity of the force, to nearly match the texture of Los Angeles itself.
A Harvard University study released last week found a wide variety of factors playing a role in the "staggering scale of change" in the LAPD over the past decade. But one of the most visible changes according to the study's authors - and according to Police Chief William Bratton - was significantly increasing the diversity of the LAPD to match the city it's sworn to protect.
In 1990, according to the report, 45 percent of graduates from the Police Academy were white; 30 percent were Latino and 19 percent were black.
By 2008, 53 percent of new graduates were Latino; 29 percent were white; and 7 percent were black.
With 83 percent of residents surveyed saying the department is doing a good or excellent job, Bratton says a police force that a decade ago was embroiled in corruption and brutality scandals may now become a national example of how to regain the trust of minority communities.
"The 1990s is a decade the department would like to forget," Bratton said in an interview. "It was like a 10-round fight and every year they were on the mat and particularly in the minority communities there was incredible distrust of the department. The good news is we seemed to have turned a corner."
The department has received higher approval ratings from minority communities in recent years. From 2005 to 2009, surveys found the number of residents giving positive results to the question "Do you think that the police in your community treat all racial and ethnic groups fairly" increased to 51 percent, from 39 percent four years earlier.
In what was described as "one of the most complete assessments ever conducted" of a police department, the authors noted crime has fallen to levels not seen since the 1950s and the most serious uses of force - shootings, carotid artery control holds or head strikes with impact weapons - have fallen 30percent since 2004.
Even more notable, the incidence of serious force used against blacks and Latinos decreased more than such force used against whites.
These improvements, which the report attributed to good leadership, governance and oversight, came as the department has become increasingly diverse in the past decade, the result of two consent decrees in which the LAPD entered.
These include the Blake Consent Decree in 1981, requiring the LAPD to recruit more women and minority police officers and remove impediments to promotion, and the Hunter La Ley Consent Decree in 1992, obliging the department to ensure fair practices in the training and promotion of minority officers.
With retirements and a push to hire more officers in recent years, about 40 percent of the LAPD's nearly 10,000 officers have joined the force since 2000.
"One of the benefits of bringing in younger and more diverse police officers is that you have the opportunity to change the mentality of those who operated under previous chiefs," said the Rev. Eric P. Lee, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles.
Lee said under Chief Daryl Gates, who led the agency from 1978 to 1992, the department had much more of an "us versus them" mentality when it came to dealing with minority communities.
"But that is now being replaced by a younger recruiting class that operates more from a community-minded perspective," Lee said.
By 2008, Latinos made up 42percent of all sworn officers, up from 33 percent in 1999. The proportion of white officers fell from 47 percent to 37 percent.
The percentage of black officers dropped from 14 percent to 12 percent in that time, but the distribution of black officers has shifted toward longer years of service. They now account for 22 percent of officers with more than 10 years of service and more than 20 percent of the LAPD's captains.
"I think when you change the racial and ethnic face of the department ... what happens is you end up with a department that is not only reflective of an ethnically diverse city, but also one that is a lot more in tune with the ethnic population of a city like L.A.," said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable.
"I think that makes a huge difference in terms of how officers approach policing and how the community, especially in South L.A., sees and interacts with the police."
Leon Jenkins, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said he believes progress has been made and he'd like to "take his hat off to Chief Bratton" for improving the department's neighborhood policing and putting blacks in leadership positions.
"But there is still a long ways to go," he added. "To give accolades that everything is OK - that we can now take our guards down - is not the position we want to take because of the history. I think racial profiling is still an issue."
Peter Bibring, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said the LAPD deserves credit for its growing diversity, but he said it's a mistake to think that is a solution to all police problems. Bibring pointed out the report notes only 51 percent of those surveyed believe the LAPD treats racial and ethnic groups fairly "almost all the time" or "most of the time."
Also, Bibring highlighted a portion of the report that found a "troubling pattern" that blacks and to a lesser extent Latinos, are subject to the use of force out of proportion to their share of contacts with the LAPD.
The city's black residents made up 22 percent of all those stopped by the LAPD from 2004 to 2008, but 31 percent of arrested suspects, 34 percent of those subjected to a serious use of force and 43 percent of those injured in a less serious use of force.
The authors wrote their observations of the LAPD confirmed the department's culture remains aggressive and "we saw a lot of force displayed in what seemed to be routine enforcement situations."
And while about two-thirds of LAPD officers surveyed believe the agency is better than it was three years ago, many officers complained to Harvard researchers that recruitment standards have fallen. One officer in a focus group commented, "The new officers are not much better than thugs. We've lowered our standards. Now we're hiring gang members."
A supervisor in another focus group said, "We get people who are hired that get to our division who don't even speak English, and I'm talking about basic everyday English - cannot speak the language."
In a 1997 survey of LAPD officers, only 35 percent agreed the department hires qualified people. Today, that percentage has risen to 46 percent.
Looking into the future - even as the city faces massive budget cuts - Bratton is optimistic the LAPD can continue to build on its recent success and continue to be on the cutting edge of improving race relations.
"Nobody is claiming that we've reached a destination on a journey we set out on many years ago," Bratton said. "But rather, at this particular point in the journey, it seems we're going in the right direction, we're picking up momentum - and as we're going along we're gathering more people willing to take the journey with us."
"The journey is to arrive at a city that is not gripped by racial tensions, but one that benefits from racial harmony. In one of America's most racially mixed cities, wouldn't that be a great thing because we could show the way for the rest of America"