Angel Jennings, Los Angeles Times, March 28, 2015
The sweeps came on Friday nights in South Los Angeles, often before big events like Raiders games. Police would round up young men they thought were gang members and hold them over the weekend to keep violence down, a campaign launched by then-Chief Daryl F. Gates to control “the rotten little cowards.”
Francisco McClure recalled being arrested several times, only to be released the following Monday mornings without being charged. For the young black man, the fact that most of the officers were white made the experience even more bitter.
The martial arts instructor, 50, these days sees more Latino and black faces patrolling his community of Jefferson Park, and he says the officers don’t hassle residents as much. He commends them for holding neighborhood forums and using more dashboard cameras.
But, he said, “they just cleaned up their act a little. Before it was white against blacks. Now it’s just blue against blacks.”
The Los Angeles Police Department often is cited as an example of how recruiting nonwhite officers can improve community relations. The LAPD, once a predominantly white institution, now closely mirrors the city’s demographics and is majority nonwhite–from the glass offices at headquarters to patrol cars working the beat.
There is wide agreement that the transformation has helped, turning even some longtime LAPD critics into supporters.
“The department has moved away from being an occupying force in South L.A. and East L.A. to one that interacts and is more representative of those communities,” said John Mack, a veteran civil rights leader who recently served as a police commissioner.
But Mack and others also acknowledge that a more diverse police force has not extinguished distrust in the community it serves.
From Ferguson, Mo., to New York City, protests in recent months have focused on white officers using deadly force on blacks. LAPD shootings of black men have also sparked demonstrations, but those protests have focused on the race of the people shot and allegations of police bias–and not the race of the officers involved.
Police Chief Charlie Beck is often credited with being a guiding force in helping to improve community relations in South Los Angeles over the last 15 years.
Beck said there are always going to be allegations of mistreatment in a department “that involves a million contacts” with the public each year.
The goal, he said, is to become more deeply involved in the community so that conflicts between police and residents are viewed as isolated incidents, not signs that the department as a whole treats people unfairly.
Command staff recently underwent eight hours of “implicit bias training” to recognize the subconscious prejudices they might hold. The department also runs a large cadet program as well as a magnet program in five high schools across the city that aims to teach and mentor students interested in careers in law enforcement.
Beck pointed to the work of a cadre of officers who have made inroads in Jordan Downs, a housing project with a violent reputation and history of ill will between residents and police. Officers help with a Girl Scout troop, take kids camping and talk to gang members about getting jobs and leaving the streets.
Even with a more diverse police department, officers continue to use force on blacks out of proportion to their numbers in the city. Blacks represent 9% of the city’s population but account for 19% of police shootings and 31% of less serious use-of-force cases. About half the complaints filed with the LAPD alleging biased policing involve interactions with black men, records show.
Beck said there is no simple explanation for those numbers. Race, he said, is just one factor, along with poverty and education levels, employment and neighborhood crime rates. Although blacks make up a small percentage of the city overall, they make up a much larger percentage of residents in higher-crime neighborhoods.
But in Los Angeles, Latinos make up about 45% of the force, more than any other group. Whites, who accounted for 61% of the department 25 years ago, are now about a third of sworn officers. Asian Americans are a quickly growing demographic in the LAPD, about 9.6%, as they are in Southern California; they constitute 11% of L.A.’s population.