LOS ANGELES (AP) — For years, the Los Angeles Police Department has fielded several hundred complaints a year from minorities who said they were unfairly targeted for traffic stops and arrests because of their skin color.
Over that time internal investigations brought one result: No wrongdoing by police.
The department is moving to fire a white traffic officer over allegations of racial profiling. The case is a first for a department that has struggled with race relations and is another defining moment in its reform efforts, but some observers believe more needs to be done by LAPD brass to address subconscious biases officers may have.
The case, first reported by the Los Angeles Times, involves motorcycle Officer Patrick Smith, a 15-year veteran, who pulled over Latinos based on their ethnicity and misidentified some as being white on reports he submitted, multiple anonymous sources told the newspaper.
The police union declined to comment on the allegations.
Police Chief Charlie Beck said Tuesday that the officer, whose identity he declined to confirm, will be sent to a disciplinary hearing where a three-person board will hear the case and determine whether Smith should be fired.
Beck said more than 99 percent of claims that accuse officers of biased policing are unsubstantiated, and he takes such accusations "extremely seriously."
"Racial profiling and biased policing are some of the most difficult allegations to prove against a law enforcement officer because they go to the core of why someone took an enforcement action," Beck said. "We do these investigations to a standard that no other law enforcement agency comes close to."
Racial profiling allegations have long dogged the department and were only fueled further by the Rodney King beating and the Rampart corruption scandal.
Faced with possibly being sued by the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division, the department was placed under a decade-long consent decree that mandated more than 100 reforms, one of which was a ban on racial profiling.
In 2008, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California released a report that found LAPD officers were more likely to stop and search black and Hispanic residents than they were whites, even though whites were more often found carrying guns or contraband. The report looked at more than 800,000 pedestrian and motor vehicle stops over an 11-month period.
A year later, the inspector general for the Los Angeles Police Commission determined there were problems in a third of the LAPD internal investigations of police officers accused of profiling based on race, gender or sexual orientation.
And two years ago, the Department of Justice became aware of a recording of two LAPD officers being dismissive of racial profiling complaints and asked the department to do more to deal with the issue.
Beck created a unit within the past two years that investigates allegations of biased policing that looked at possible constitutional rights violations. He said the unprecedented case against Smith is proof that his department is doing good work.
"I think it just shows that we mean what we say," Beck said. "It's not appropriate to violate the law while you are enforcing the law."
However, some observers believe while the department should be credited for making improvements to address racial profiling, Beck and his command staff should look at assumptions most people have when it comes to race.
Peter Bibring, who handles police issues as a senior ACLU staff attorney, said LAPD officials can look at racial profiling data and determine whether there are any patterns of subconscious racial profiling with officers and then bring it to their attention.
"If the department only acts when it can prove the officer intended to discriminate, they're going to sit on the sidelines in all but the most egregious cases," Bibring said. "If you don't address those unconscious biases you aren't addressing the problem of racial profiling."
John Mack, a member of the Police Commission that has challenged the department to make reforms, said he doesn't believe racial profiling is running rampant within LAPD. He credited Beck with a "major breakthrough" in the action taken against Smith because he said the department hadn't dealt with the issue very seriously in the past.
"I think this is another example that this is a Los Angeles Police Department that is a 21st century police department. This is a major step in the right direction," Mack said.