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      Stop Questionable LAPD Stop and Frisk

      The following is a letter by Tom Hayden and attorney Robert García, chairman of the City Project, to the Los Angeles Police Commission, about a growing dragnet against inner city youth.

      Download this letter to the Police Comission here.

      Dec. 17, 2010

      John W. Mack
      The Los Angeles Police Commission
      Executive Office
      Police Administration Building
      100 West First Street Suite 134
      Los Angeles, CA 90012

      Re:    Stop Questionable LAPD Stop and Frisk

      Dear Honorable Members of the Police Commission:

      We are disturbed by the lack of civic action in response to constitutionally-questionable stop-and-frisk practices, often defined as racial profiling, by the Los Angeles Police Department.

      Criticisms of the LAPD by the U.S. Justice Department have revived interest in the controversy over biased policing. The federal government will remain in an oversight role of the Department until the problem is faced squarely.[1]

      In contrast to Los Angeles, New York state and city are taking strong action to curb what columnist Bob Herbert condemns as “Jim Crow policing.” In New York City, there were over 450,000 stops in the first three quarters of 2009, an overwhelming 84 percent of them African Americans or Latinos. Only about 6 percent of stops resulted in arrests for any reason, and less than 2 percent resulted in finding contraband or guns.[2]

      The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) has filed a class-action lawsuit against the New York police department on the grounds of unconstitutional harassment that costs taxpayers significantly. A study by Prof. Jeffrey Fagan of Columbia Law School, conducted for the CCR, found a pattern of 2.8 million unprovoked and unnecessary stops from 2004 through 2009. The Fagan study found that officers stopped minorities at disproportionate rates.[3]

      Is there a similar pattern in Los Angeles? According to a 2009 Harvard analysis requested and promoted by former LAPD Chief William Bratton, stops by LAPD officers rose from 587,200 in 2002 to 875,204 in 2008. Pedestrian stops doubled and motorists stops increased by forty percent in those years.[4] We do not know of any evidence that an increase in crime rates during that time frame justified the increase in stops.  Unfettered police discretion to stop and frisk traditionally has been used for arbitrary, capricious and discriminatory actions by the police against people of color.

      Indeed, the steepest increases in LAPD arrests during that period were for Part Two [or less serious] offenses such as loitering, disorderly conduct, DUI, etc. More serious Part One [index crime] offenses like homicide, rape robbery, aggravated assault, burglary or car theft] dropped to only 15 percent of all LAPD arrests in 2007.[5]

      In the words of the Harvard study, “these steep increases in Part Two arrests represent police management decisions to use arrest powers more aggressively for less serious crimes.” For example, “the number of juveniles arrested for Part Two offenses . . . is about twice what it was in 1990.”[6] (Emphasis added.)

      The ACLU and members of the Commission have properly complained that the Department has failed to uphold findings of racial profiling for years. But the remedy should be policy change, with perhaps a strengthening of the remaining consent decree mechanisms, not a token slap on the wrist of an occasional officer.

      There is a fundamental confusion over the definition of profiling, with some clinging to the notion that a finding of overt racial bias, or a pattern and practice of overt racial bias, is required. But as the L.A. Times article of November 15 correctly notes, the definition can address forms of “outward appearance” as well.

      The heart of the matter, as we have stated, is that the Department, with the consent thus far of the Commission, reserves a right to make “police management decisions to use arrest powers for less serious crimes.”[7] In practice, this means that the likelihood of a young man or woman being stopped in the inner city for “their outward appearance” is far greater than those stopped in white, middle or upper class sections of Los Angeles. The effect is the stopping and frisking of hundreds of thousands of innocent young people on the basis of where they live. According to the Harvard data, it appears that 84 percent of those stopped are African-American or Latino. The concentration of police stops is greatest in the Central, Southeast, Newton and Hollenbeck divisions.

      Some will argue that the LAPD policy results in the successful prosecution of dangerous criminals who otherwise would be a danger in the streets. There may be some evidence for this claim, but we are not aware that it has been independently scrutinized and released for public review. But there is no doubt that this policy of preventive arrest affects the innocent in far greater numbers than those illegally possessing weapons or drugs. The impacts are disproportionate when race and ethnicity are considered.

      We therefore question the morality, the efficacy, and the social impacts of this dragnet approach to policing, which would not be tolerated in any other communities. Aside from the constitutionality and racial/ethnic impacts, we question the budgetary costs and diversion of police resources away from other public safety priorities.

      The Department, we understand, embraces its “management authority” as sacrosanct and outside the scope and responsibility of the Commission, the Council and Mayor. We understand the need for guided police discretion in the implementation of policy, but the authority to decide to arrest hundreds of thousands of people for less serious crimes is a public policy choice that has severe social consequences.

      Further, the Harvard report concludes that the Inspector General has only “modest” formal powers and chooses to influence the Department by generally “avoiding public criticism.”[8]

      In only ten instances between 2005-2008 did the Inspector General differ substantially from the Chief in its findings on use of categorical force.[9]

      Finally, according to the report, the Commission has oversight power to influence the Department’s behavior.[10] We therefore appeal to the Commission to order and ensure a complete and independent investigation of these questions, with input from all stakeholders, in order to determine whether there are better, less discriminatory, constitutional ways, to assure public safety without targeting a class of young people for greater enforcement based solely on where they live.

      LAPD should publish data and information for the public to understand stops, where they occur, and the race or ethnicity of the people stopped. Civil rights laws require, among other obligations, that recipients of federal financial assistance such as LAPD permit access to such sources of information as may be pertinent to ascertain compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the implementing regulations.

      See United States of America v Maricopa County et al., Complaint (Sept. 2, 2010), available at

      In 2000, we published an Op/Ed piece in the Los Angeles Times about police misconduct that led in part to the Ramparts investigation and consent decree.  Perspective on the Rampart Scandal: This Case Calls for a Truly Outside Inquiry, L.A. Times, Feb. 20, 2000 (with Paul Hoffman). We urge you to take these concerns seriously on behalf of all the people of Los Angeles.


      Tom Hayden

      Robert García


      Tom Hayden served in the California legislature from 1982 to 2000 as an assemblyman and senator. He is a writer and activist.

      Robert García is a civil rights attorney and former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York.

      [1] Joel Rubin, “Justice Department warns LAPD to take a stronger stance against racial profiling,” L.A. Times, Nov. 14, 2010.

      [2] Bob Herbert, “Jim Crow Policing,” N.Y. Times, Feb. 1, 2010.

      [3] Al Baker and Ray Rivera, "Study Finds Street Stops by N.Y. Police Unjustified," N.Y. Times, Oct. 26, 2010. See also Ray Rivera, Al Baker and Janet Roberts, “A Few Blocks, 4 Years, 52,000 Police Stops,” N.Y. Times, July 11, 2010, and Al Baker and Ray Rivera, “Patterson to Sign Bill Limiting Retention of Street-Stop Data,” N.Y. Times, July 15, 2010.

      [4] Christopher Stone, Todd Foglesong, Christine Cole, “Policing Los Angeles Under a Consent Decree: The Dynamics of Change at the LAPD,” Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, Harvard Kennedy School, May 2009. Chief William Bratton called for the study, and it was largely funded by the Los Angeles Police Foundation.

      [5] Id. at 27.

      [6] Id. at 29.

      [7] Id. at 27.

      [8] Id. at 66.

      [9] Id. at 64.

      [10] Id. at 66.

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