Enough Slamming the LAPD Over 'Racial Profiling'

In sitting down to write this column, I had what we might call a Groundhog Day sensation, as though I've been here many times staring at the blank screen only to have the same words and arguments come to mind.

Well, what else can a cop do? When the ACLU keeps trotting out its old horses, I must trot out my own. I refer to an op-ed in Thursday's Los Angeles Times by the ACLU's Mark Rosenbaum and Peter Bibring, in which they argue that the federal consent decree under which the Los Angeles Police Department has been operating for eight years should be extended yet again.  On Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Gary Feess will hold a hearing in Los Angeles to address that very issue.

I've been writing for years about the diversion of police resources from fighting crime to complying with the consent decree's labyrinthine provisions (see here, here, and here, for example), and I'm dismayed to see that even now, as city workers in Los Angeles face the very real prospect of pay cuts and layoffs, there are educated people who nonetheless advocate for throwing more and more money down the bureaucratic rathole that has been spawned by the consent decree.

The consent decree arose from what is known as the Rampart scandal of the mid to late '90s, in which some officers at the LAPD's Rampart Division engaged in criminal conduct ranging from concocting cases against suspected gang members to shooting unarmed men and fabricating cases against them. Janet Reno's Justice Department threatened to bring a lawsuit against the LAPD, citing what it described as a "pattern and practice" of unlawful behavior. Rather than contest the lawsuit, the mayor and city council elected to enter into the consent decree and submit the LAPD to oversight from a federal judge. It is worth noting that as bad as the Rampart scandal was, it was confined to handful of officers at a single police station.  If there ever was any evidence of a department-wide "pattern and practice" of illegal behavior, to this very day no one has produced it.

As one might expect, Rosenbaum and Bibring point to what they describe as "disturbing and unjustifiable racial patterns" in the way the LAPD does business. They cite a study by Yale economist Ian Ayres, who concluded that the racial disparities in LAPD pedestrian and vehicle stops cannot be justified by crime rates or any other legitimate factor. I answered Ayres here, but further refutation is called for now. Among the flaws in Ayres's study is its reliance on the premise that there is some mathematically correct ratio of persons stopped by police to a given ethnic group's share of the criminal pool and overall population. If Group A is committing X percent of a city's crime, then Group A should represent X percent of the city's vehicle and pedestrian stops. But this ignores the reality of police work. To paraphrase the late Daniel Seligman, if it were known that in a Las Vegas casino a certain slot machine paid 10 percent more than any of the others, that machine surely would see more than a 10 percent increase in play.

And so it is in police work. As I have pointed out, Groundhog Day style, over and over and over again, violent crime in Los Angeles is dominated by blacks and Hispanics, and no straw-man arguments about racial profiling can alter this uncomfortable but persistent fact. Although crime in Los Angeles has dropped sharply in the past six years, the racial patterns among offenders are nonetheless consistent. Though blacks now make up less than 10 percent of the city's population, in 2007 blacks committed about one third of the city's homicides. As of May 30 of this year, the LAPD had investigated 114 homicides, a remarkable 30 percent decline from the same period last year. There are 21 police divisions in Los Angeles, but 43 percent of those homicides occurred in the four divisions that make up heavily minority populated South and South Central L.A., an area containing only 16 percent of the city's total population. Those same four divisions have also seen 38 percent of the city's overall violent crime this year. And as any detective in the city's more tranquil regions will attest, the violent crimes that are occurring in those areas are also largely committed by blacks and Hispanics. The ACLU may not like it, but if police officers are to have an impact on crime, they will concentrate their efforts in those areas where it is most prevalent and on those people who are most responsible.

The downward trend in crime cannot last forever. Indeed, five of the LAPD's divisions have seen increases in violent crime this year, perhaps a harbinger of what is to come should the city's financial condition force cuts in the police department. Today there are hundreds of able-bodied cops who do nothing all day but pore over paperwork related to the consent decree, and thousands of others who must commit at least a portion of their workday to the same sort of mind-numbing bureaucracy. It's time to put those cops back on the streets.

The consent decree was intended to last for five years; it has now been in place for eight. Will I be writing another version of this column five years from now?