Shameless: Justice Department Warns LAPD over Racial Profiling

The story popped up on the Los Angeles Times website Saturday night. The headline: “Justice Department warns LAPD to take a stronger stance against racial profiling.”

One might assume on reading such a headline that the Justice Department had uncovered some damning evidence that Los Angeles Police Department officers, even after working for years under the terms of a consent decree and the watchful eyes of a federal monitor, were engaging in discriminatory practices. In the print edition, the story was given any newspaper’s most prominent placement: above the fold on the front page of the Sunday edition. This, the Times was saying, is a Very Important Story, so important in fact that they followed up with a typically sophomoric editorial in Tuesday’s edition, ominously titled “Shades of the ‘old’ LAPD.”

But if you had read Sunday’s story in search of the damning evidence you thought had been uncovered, you might have reached the end of it and said to yourself, “Wait a minute, that’s ... it?”

The evidence cited by the Justice Department and the Times fell somewhere well short of damning, to wit, a single conversation -- recorded inadvertently and perhaps illegally -- between an LAPD supervisor and two officers, in which the officers were dismissive of allegations of racial profiling. Times writer Joel Rubin described it thus:

“So, what?” one [officer] said, when told that other officers had been accused of stopping a motorist because of his race. The second officer is heard twice saying that he “couldn’t do [his] job without racially profiling.”

The officers’ comments, Justice officials found, spoke to a “perception and attitude of some LAPD officers on the street” and suggested “a culture that is inimical to race-neutral policing.”

There are indeed perceptions and attitudes among LAPD officers that both the Justice Department and the Los Angeles Times would find distasteful, but they are not the ones being fretted over in the Times’s story. Unlike our sophisticated betters in the lawyering and newspaper businesses, police officers cannot afford to entertain the fevered utopian fantasies of those who choose to pretend, against all evidence, that crime and criminals are equally distributed among all races and ethnicities. Like police officers everywhere, LAPD officers must perceive the world as it exists, with all its many imperfections, and their attitudes are shaped accordingly. And in Los Angeles, as in any other city you might name, the reality is that blacks and Latinos are responsible for a far greater share of the city’s crime than every other ethnic group combined.

Consider: The city of Los Angeles is divided into 21 patrol divisions, each with it’s own police station and complement of officers.  In examining the latest crime data from the department’s number crunchers, we can see that South Central L.A.’s 77th Street Division, populated almost entirely by blacks and Latinos, leads the city in violent crime with 2,322 incidents this year as of Nov. 6.  Trailing 77th Street are the other areas that comprise South Central L.A., Southeast, Newton, and Southwest Divisions, each with more than 1,500 violent incidents.  Together those four divisions account for more than 40 percent of the city’s violent crime despite being home to  only 16 percent of its population.

Last in the city in violent crime is the mostly white West L.A. Division with 246 incidents, this despite having 57,000 more residents than 77th Street. What’s more, officers working in West L.A. know that much of the violent crime occurring in their area is committed by blacks and Latinos who drive in from South Central and other parts of the city to prey on the relatively prosperous inhabitants.

Would the Justice Department and the Los Angeles Times have the LAPD ignore so glaring a disparity? And who but the city’s criminals would profit if it did?

But the reporters and editorialists at the Los Angeles Times need not trouble themselves to delve into the minutiae of LAPD crime statistics to learn why blacks and Latinos fall under more police scrutiny than other ethnic groups. The evidence is right on the paper’s own website every day. The Times publishes what it calls the Homicide Report, in which it provides a brief account of every homicide occurring in Los Angeles County. The report is accompanied by a map on which homicides are clustered into groups, with the largest clusters by far appearing in Central and South Central Los Angeles, representing 280 of the county’s 546 homicides reported this year as of Nov. 14.

And if you explore a bit more deeply on the paper’s website, the racial numbers are explained in even more grim detail:

The Homicide Report includes information on race or ethnicity of each homicide victim, as well as the name, gender and age and the time, place and manner of death. A number of readers have asked why race is included.  Some have criticized the practice.

Racial information was once routinely included in news stories about crimes, but in recent decades, newspapers and other media outlets stopped mentioning suspects’ or victims’ race or ethnicity because of public criticism.  Newspapers came to embrace the idea that such information is irrelevant to the reporting of crimes and may unfairly stigmatize racial groups.

The Homicide Report departs from this rule in the interest of presenting the most complete and accurate demographic picture of who is dying in homicides in Los Angeles County.

Race and ethnicity, like age and gender, are stark predictors of homicide risk. Blacks are much more likely to die from homicide than whites, and Latinos somewhat more likely. Black men, in particular, are extraordinarily vulnerable: They are less than 9% of the county’s population, but they represented nearly a third of homicide victims over the three years of data in the Homicide Report. That means one in a 1,000 blacks became homicide victims over those three years, more than 10 times the rate for whites and nearly four times the rate for Latinos.

Yes, facts are stubborn things, even at the Los Angeles Times. There will be “race-neutral policing” when the Times can report there is race-neutral crime.

In 2009, the LAPD arrested 190,000 people and cited 580,000 others for traffic violations. Among all these enforcement contacts were 216 allegations of “biased policing,” not a single one of which was sustained despite exhaustive investigations. And yet the Justice Department and the Los Angeles Times apparently find this figure more troubling than the 312 murders and the 22,000 other violent crimes that occurred in the city last year.

My previous column concerned the murder of 5-year-old Aaron Shannon Jr., who on the afternoon of Halloween was shot to death in his backyard as he played in his Spider-Man costume. His murder brought no reaction from the Justice Department, nor did it inspire any outraged editorials from the Los Angeles Times. Perhaps they find comfort in the knowledge that Aaron’s accused killers didn’t suffer the indignity and inconvenience of being profiled while on their way to commit the crime. What a horror that would have been.