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Black motorists more likely to be searched than whites, new report shows

LOS ANGELES — A coalition of community groups gathered outside Los Angeles Police Department headquarters Oct. 9 calling for changes to the agency’s policing policies in response to a report that officers searched black and Latino drivers during traffic stops far more often than white motorists.

Members of the PUSH L.A. Coalition and other organizations said they were sending letters to LAPD Chief Michel Moore and Mayor Eric Garcetti demanding changes in traffic-stop policies and calling for a formal apology from the chief and acknowledgement that racial profiling exists within the department.

“We’re not talking about individual attitudes or how an individual officer feels, we’re talking about systematic policies by this department that need to change, [policies] that target our community,” said Alberto Retana, president and CEO of Community Coalition.

The organizations also demanded that reparations be paid to people who were stopped, searched or arrested without probable cause, and said officers who habitually engage in such activities should be “disciplined and removed” from the communities.

PUSH L.A., which stands for Promoting Unity Safety & Health Los Angeles, is a coalition of advocacy and interfaith groups specifically dedicated to reforming policing.

The protest followed a Los Angeles Times analysis of traffic stop data, finding that across the city, 24% of black drivers and passengers were searched compared to 16% of Latinos and 5% of whites during a recent 10-month period. That means a black person in a vehicle was more than four times as likely to be searched by police as a white person, and a Latino was three times as likely, according to The Times.

The report noted that although black and Latino people were more likely to be searched, white motorists were more likely to actually be found with illegal items.

Some people at the Oct. 9 rally spoke about experiences they have had with LAPD officers during traffic stops and other incidents.

David Turner, a manager with Brothers, Sons, Selves, said he didn’t understand why his father told him to fear officers until police pulled a gun on him during a traffic stop.

“We’re watching all these movies, all these things that glorify law enforcement, we’re thinking they’re cool, but my dad [told me] ‘We need to be afraid,’” Turner said. “This is because of the things he experienced here as a black man in Los Angeles. That trauma he had, he passed down to my sister and I.”

Requests for comment from the mayor’s office and the chief of police were not immediately returned.

Garcetti issued a statement to The Times saying, “I look forward to our Police Commission and department leaders using this information to improve best practices, and I expect the department to work consciously and even-handedly to earn the trust of every Angeleno, every day, with every interaction.”

Moore said The Times’ analysis did not paint a full picture because it did not “define or describe the circumstances of each stop or search.”

But the chief told reporters Oct. 8 the issue raised by the report is “an area that we continue to look at.”

“We’re aware that the disparate impact on communities of color, particularly in South Los Angeles, raises concerns about trust and confidence that this is a department that’s sensitive to what our interaction with them are,” he said. “I think … what traffic stops represent is a small area of what our work is. Our work is in many different fronts in regard to public safety, including prevention and intervention efforts.”

The U.S. Department of Justice sometimes requires agencies with civil rights issues to collect and analyze stop data.

But the LAPD’s constitutional policing advisor said this type of analysis does not account for the complexities of a police officer’s decisions in sizing up a situation and deciding how to deal with the people in a vehicle.

Officers receive training on their own implicit biases and have a lawful basis for every stop and search they perform, said the advisor, Arif Alikhan, who recently left the LAPD.

Alikhan noted that the analysis includes stops where officers exercise little discretion and racial bias is less likely to be a factor, such as a search during an arrest.

“We don’t pull people over based on race. We’re not supposed to do that,” Alikhan said. “It’s illegal. It’s unconstitutional. And that’s not the basis [on which] we do it.”

Garcetti called The Times analysis “both important and timely” and said he is committed to “helping the LAPD make forward progress on issues of race and community relations.”

“I look forward to our Police Commission and department leaders using this information to improve best practices, and I expect the department to work consciously and even-handedly to earn the trust of every Angeleno, every day, with every interaction,” Garcetti said in a written statement.

The Community Coalition’s Retana, had a different viewpoint.

“To communities of color across Los Angeles, the article’s data is unfortunately unsurprising and verifies what we know to be true about the racial profiling happening by the LAPD,” Retana said. “These vehicle searches are just the tip of the iceberg as the LAPD also has a long track record of aggressively searching the homes and schools of people of color.

“This clear evidence of racial profiling has many harmful implications for black and brown families, including emotional and material impact when they get unjustly tangled in the mass incarceration system. 

“Our community members in South LA and other over-policed communities are terrified of the police and don’t feel protected or served,” Retana added. “We want real reform.”

The Times noted that racial disparities in search rates do not necessarily indicate bias. They could reflect differences in driving behavior, neighborhood crime rates and other factors.

A report presented to the city Police Commission last week showed that although there had been hundreds of complaints filed against the LAPD in the last year regarding biased policing, none of them were found to be credible enough to warrant disciplinary action.

Critics at the rally questioned how all of those complaints could be found not credible.

LAPD officials said they try to determine why bias complaints are filed and look at arrest records, and they insisted there is a comprehensive process in determining whether a complaint is valid.