Imagine this: a large, diverse California city with a historically troubled police department, with poor police/citizen relations, a history of racial profiling, documented police corruption and citizen abuse, together with a seriously broken internal affairs system. The city is sued for a pattern and practice of civil rights violations, and enters into a complex, multi-faceted consent judgment promising to dramatically change its methods of policing; relating to the community; managing citizen complaints and officer discipline; training and management. The city accepts five years of supervision by a monitor reporting to the court.
The city and department’s path to reform is far from smooth. The city experiences use of force incidents and officer-involved shootings—including the deaths of small children—that shock the community. In a highly publicized incident, the department’s response to a large public demonstration is sharply criticized for widespread abuse of participants’ civil rights. The top level of the department seems to have a revolving door, as key management personnel are constantly being replaced. Five years into the consent judgment, the monitor moves to extend the judgment by two years. The Federal judge is so unhappy with the city’s progress, he denies the motion, and extends the consent judgment for three years.
The consent decree was unpopular with many rank and file officers, who complained that it “de-policed” them. Meanwhile, local pundits argued that the monitors’ demands were unreasonable, that the paperwork requirements were overwhelming and that the City should negotiate an early end to court supervision.
Does any of this sound familiar to Oakland residents? Certainly it does. But this tale is not about Oakland. It’s about Los Angeles and its police department’s nine-year history of operating under a consent judgment with the United States Department of Justice after the department’s Ramparts corruption scandal, Rodney King beating, and actions in response to the week-long riots that followed the acquittals of three out of four officers charged in the King beating. The Consent Judgment had many of the elements of Oakland’s “Negotiated Settlement Agreement.” Like the NSA, it was intended to bring the police department into the twenty-first century. And like Oakland and the NSA, Los Angeles’ consent judgment involved a major struggle for many years.
The story of Los Angeles and its effort at police reform is not a story of despair. It is a story of hope for any troubled police department. Because in 2009, the supervising Federal Judge released the Los Angeles Police Department from court supervision, stating that:
LAPD has become the national and international policing standard for activities that range from audits to handling of the mentally ill to many aspects of training to risk assessment of police officers and more.
During the years of court supervision, the number of sworn officers grew by more than 10%. During those same years, violent crime in Los Angeles dropped by 57% and the number of murders dropped by 52%. As points of comparison, changes in the violent crime and number of murders in other cities were as follows:
Violent Crime Rate / Number of Murder Changes
2002 – 2009
Violent Crime Change (Rate)
Murder Change (Number)
(These numbers are from the FBI’s Annual reports Crime in the United States. The 2002 numbers for the above cities are available here. The 2009 numbers for these cities are here. The percentage change calculations are MOBN!’s.)
During the years of Federal court supervision, citizen views about the police department improved substantially. In 2005, 50% of those surveyed said the “services of the police in Los Angeles” were either good or excellent. In 2009, that figure rose to 60%, while 83% (including 80% of Hispanic and about 70% African American respondents) stated that the LAPD was doing either an excellent or good job. While many respondents seemed to believe there was still room for the department’s improvement in bringing officers to justice while respecting their rights and complying with the law, 90% of respondents in 2009 (85% African American and 89% Hispanic) were very hopeful or somewhat hopeful of the department’s success in the coming years.
But here is something amazing. At the end of the supervision period, researchers conducted focus groups (comprising mostly men) who had been recently arrested and detained. Most had a significant history of involuntary contact with police. More than half of these respondents thought the police were doing a good or excellent job. Between a third and half thought the LAPD had improved in the past two to three years in its professionalism, its community relations, its respect toward residents and the quality of its performance. While this was not a random sample, and there was no comparison to previous focus groups (because there weren’t any), the result is nonetheless remarkable.
The researchers also asked the detainees some open-ended questions:
. . . . we asked the detainees to tell us the best experience and the worst experience that they had ever had with an LA police officer. The worst experiences included examples of allegedly wrongful arrests, handcuffs being applied too tightly, and many examples of disrespect. The best experiences were equally telling, if not more so. One immigrant detainee said he had been comforted by his arresting officer when he expressed fear of being deported as a result of his arrest. Another detainee described a sergeant who helped him file a civilian complaint against another officer whom the detainee felt was harassing him for no reason. The research team noticed a pattern of positive experiences that involved police acknowledging a detainee’s feelings or individual circumstances.
The researchers did hear some disturbing comments about officers’ fairness and bias, and found that some 23% of African Americans responded that LA police “almost never” treat all racial and ethnic groups fairly—a disturbing upward tick since 2005. But compare this with the Oakland Police Department’s survey in January 2010, finding that 31% of the residents of Oakland have a somewhat or very unfavorable view of the department (Slide 15).
The requirements of Oakland’s NSA and the Los Angeles consent judgment were similar. So what accounts for the different outcomes? What can Oakland learn from Los Angeles? We will discuss these questions in our next post.
A chronology of the history of the LAPD’s problems in the years before its Consent Judgment and during its operations under that Consent Judgment is available here.
There is an excellent report by Christopher Stone, Todd Foglesong and Christine M. Cole from the Harvard Kennedy School Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, Policing Los Angeles Under a Consent Decree: The Dynamics of Change at the LAPD, from which we derived a great deal of information contained in this post.
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