LAPD watchdogs question why officers are rarely found guilty of racial profiling

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The Los Angeles Police Department received 204 complaints last year, accusing officers of racial profiling. (LAPD uses the term “biased policing.”)  Los Angeles police commissioners want to know why none of the complaints were verified.

“There are virtually no complaints of biased policing or racial profiling that result in the conclusion that the officer was guilty of the charge,” police commissioner Robert Saltzman said at a meeting this week.

The lack of validated complaints about profiling within LAPD contrasts, he said, with confirmed cases around the country of African-American and Latino men who say law enforcement treated them differently because of their race.

“Those are pretty far apart,” Saltzman said of the disparity in complaints and findings of guilt in Los Angeles. “That to me is the problem that warrants our attention.”

LAPD Commander Stuart Maislin acknowledged the skepticism, but assured the police commission that internal investigators rigorously review biased policing complaints.  

“We do give them higher scrutiny than almost every other complaints, as far as the level of review,” Maislin said.

When a biased policing complaint is filed, it's reviewed by the supervisor overseeing the accused officer. The supervisor can clear the allegation or send it up the chain of command for further investigation. All decisions on biased policing complaints made by supervisors get a final review by the LAPD’s Internal Affairs Group, which can overturn a supervisor’s decision.

Internal investigators disagreed with 15 cases reviewed by supervisors last year, said Maislin. But there’s a one-year time limit for the police department to rule a complaint against an officer is true and make him or her eligible for potential punishment.

In addition, proving an officer used racial profiling is very difficult and relies heavily on related data. Information must be collected on why an officer stopped someone or whether the person was searched. This can show a pattern of racial profiling. But it often is a task that requires considerable resources.

“I think it’s extraordinarily difficult to get a handle on,” said civil right attorney Connie Rice. “The usual ways of looking at this data don’t really prove any kind of racial animus or intent.”

Racial profiling at the LAPD has been a long-time frustration for police watchdogs. Six years ago, the ACLU of Southern California commissioned a review of LAPD pedestrian and traffic stops from 2003-04 that found African-Americans and Latinos were stopped, frisked, searched and arrested more than whites.

“The LAPD is a department that recognizes data analysis helps solve problems,” said local ACLU attorney Peter Bibring. “They use COMSTAT and predictive policing so they should be taking the same approach to help identify racial disparities in the way their enforcement operates.”

Maislin said the LAPD is interested in applying for federal justice department grant funds recently offered to organizations gathering data on racial profiling and seeking ways to ease mistrust between law enforcement and minority communities.

There were 281 biased policing complaints filed in 2010. That dropped to 263 the following year and continued to fall to 211 by 2012. Maislin projected the LAPD would end this year with roughly 200 complaints filed.

“I think that shows that biased policing complaints have decreased over the last several years,” he said.

But some on the L.A. Police Commission said they are still troubled that, despite the number of complaints and the layers of review, none have been found guilty.

Two years ago, a department investigation found a motorcycle officer intentionally misstated the ethnicity of Latino drivers he pulled over. The police chief determined the allegation to be true and sent his finding to the police review board, which determined he was not guilty of biased policing. He was eventually removed from the department on other allegations of misconduct.

The LAPD does have a new pilot mediation program, introduced after the police commission grew frustrated with the department’s inability to conclude whether an officer engaged in biased policing.

People who file biased policing complaints — those that don’t allege serious constitutional violations such beatings or racial slurs — can meet face-to-face with the accused officer, if he or she voluntarily agrees to meet.

So far, five cases have gone through the mediation program. Four were completed with both sides agreeing to the result, said Maislin. There are 18 more biased policing complaints that are currently in the mediation process.

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