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Has Bratton's LAPD Really Reformed? | The Nation

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Has Bratton's LAPD Really Reformed?

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Code of Silence Persists

About the Author

Tom Hayden
Senator Tom Hayden, the Nation Institute's Carey McWilliams Fellow, has played an active role in American politics and...

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While citizen complaints have fallen, according to the Harvard report, LAPD internal investigations upheld not one of 1,200 complaints of racial profiling between 2003 and 2008. Of 2,368 complaints of officer discourtesy, the LAPD sustained only 1.6 percent of them. Fully 85 percent of LAPD officers believe that most civilian complaints are "frivolous."

The infamous code of silence has not been broken by the consent decree. Nor has the LAPD's "doctrine of infallibility", according to Rampart Reconsidered, which quoted one officer as saying "it gets to the point when we don't even know when we're lying anymore."

These festering legacies could be resolved by an independent inspector general or a genuine civilian review commission, which the LAPD has opposed for three decades. The current Office of Inspector General (IG) was created only in 1996, and two the first IGs resigned in frustration. The office has gradually achieved "standing," but only to speak, at the real decision-making meetings of the Use of Force Boards. "Adoption of the Inspector General's recommendations and advice is optional and its formal powers are modest." In a case involving police brutality, the IG cannot find the behavior "out of policy" unless it is "substantially" out of policy, a higher and undefinable standard. Moreover the IG "does not possess independent sources of routine information about Department practices," cannot conduct independent or parallel investigations" and is forced to rely on information supplied by the department itself.

In conclusion, without the oversight of a federal judge and a consent decree road map, the system of police reform in Los Angeles will remain ad hoc, ineffective and even broken. The mayor, City Council, police commission and inspector general have lacked not only the political will but the mandate, the powers and the funding to perform independent oversight and enforcement. Beneath the layers of reform added to the department over three decades, it remains the fact that the police predominate in policing the police.

Whole generations of young people have been scarred by the police and by the criminal justice system in the process. Both the juvenile justice system and the state prisons--incarcerating over 150,000 people on any given day--have been placed under federal consent decrees for their unconstitutional abuses for years. Taxpayers have been hit with astronomical costs, usually hidden in undecipherable budgets. Using the available data from the state attorney general's office, between 1997-98 and 2005-06, Los Angeles County taxpayers spent $101.8 billion on police, sheriffs, probation officers and jails. Throw in the prosecutors for another $2.4 million in the same years. Criminal justice budgets for Los Angeles County continued to rise every year between 1997-98 and 2005-06, from $4.4 billion to $6.3 billion. Statewide, criminal expenditures rose from $15.4 billion to $23.3 billion in the same period, for a total of $169 billion dollars, largely driven by incarceration rates in Los Angeles.

The odd thing about these budgetary numbers is that they rose over those eight years while crime kept going down. Before anyone leaps to credit either Bratton's techniques or LAPD reform, a Harvard report footnote acknowledges that "rates of recorded crime decreased throughout the state of California as a whole in this period [the 1990s] by 48 percent." While the number of recorded index crimes decreased 33.5 percent in Los Angeles between January 2003 and the end of 2008, there were sustained reductions in crime across the United States as well.

Long before Bratton became chief and before the Rampart scandal, gang slayings in South Los Angeles fell from 466 in 1992 to 223 by 1998. Drive-by shootings were down 27 percent citywide, and gang-related homicides by 36.7 percent compared to the previous five-year average. The Times gave partial credit to gang intervention workers in a 1998 article headlined "Ex-Gang Members Work to Bring Peace to the Streets," at the very time Alex Sanchez was joining Homies Unidos. For whatever mix of reasons, gang homicides declined despite national rhetoric, from Reagan to Clinton, filled with warnings of a new generation of 6-year-olds who would become "superpredators." Those predictions proved politically successful in justifying the war on gangs, but were simply false.

Bratton's emphasis on using arrest powers "more aggressively for less serious crimes," while popular with the public, shows little result in terms of the resources expended: ten years ago, gang-related crimes in Los Angeles totaled 7,053 incidents compared to 6,877 in 2008, a decline of 2 percent, or 183 incidents in a decade. The war on crime and gangs is not succeeding, or it is going to be a long war indeed.

The Numbers Game

A little-noticed police scandal is the danger of manipulating numbers when the police themselves are in charge of tabulating the results of their war. All the gang-homicide numbers are derived from officers on the scene. The term "gang-related," used by the LAPD, is more elastic than the "gang-motivated" definition used in Chicago and other cities. A "gang-related" killing can be one in which someone is killed in a lover's quarrel, or a liquor store is robbed, if one of the parties sports a tattoo. The number of "gang-related" crimes can rise or fall by making an accounting mistake or massaging the numbers. Just like fabricated evidence in a trial, numbers can be manufactured to create headlines about either crime scares or celebrations of crime declines, as the John Jay College researcher Andrew Karmen has shown. Karmen questioned the claims of Bratton and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in New York, writing that young men who had turned their lives around "were still treated indiscriminately as potentially dangerous persons by the NYPD," a pattern that would repeat when Bratton came to Los Angeles. Both Bratton and Giuliani dismissed such questioning as coming from "intellectuals."

The same arrogance has reappeared in Los Angeles. Bratton recently took to claiming that Los Angeles is "as safe as 1956," an assertion sharply questioned by the dean of LA gang researchers, Malcolm Klein at the University of Southern California. Bratton replied: "That's his opinion and what the hell do I care about his opinion. Nobody is listening to him anyway. I don't know who he is, and if you walked down the street and asked the first 100 Angelenos do they know who he is, they're not going to know."

The most crucial step in police reform may be information reform. The federal court could order the city to contract with a reliable university-based research team to develop independent data on gang-related crime patterns in Los Angeles. The inspector general could be empowered to conduct independent or parallel investigations. In the current fog, police budgets go up automatically whether crime rates rise or fall, based on pre-set budget formulas that are mostly Xerox-based.

Alex Sanchez and the Globalization of Gangs

California now leads America, and America leads the world, in locking people up, holding an astonishing 25 percent of all inmates on earth. That's more than any dictatorship, and rather resembles our disproportionate military budget, which vastly exceeds that of any comparable country. The war-on-gangs-and-drugs paradigm is being fused with the "war on terror" into a template for suppression-first policies without end. Despite these military expenditures, the globalization of gangs is proceeding apace, with street gangs mushrooming everywhere that neoliberal policies have left a hopeless underclass behind. The lack of real checks and balances guarantees that the voices of "law and order" will dominate the discourse. Ending the consent decree in Los Angeles, if it happens, will allow the LAPD to resume its antigang wars unmolested.

The epicenters of this new war are the border regions of the United States, Mexico and Central America, where Alex Sanchez comes from along with tens of thousands of immigrants who are deported and return again every year. To break the cycle, the paramilitary model of war will have to be replaced with a model that includes space for ex-gang members that want to help restore the communities they once ravaged. But the politics, for now, favor the police. The Alex Sanchez case will open a window into practices that police, politicians and the public have avoided or denied for a decade.

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