Los Angeles to Agree to Police Oversight by Feds

A History of Racial Bias, Corruption

Like most major cities in this country, Los Angeles has tales of police corruption dating back decades. Many of them involve race.

On Aug. 11, 1965, a routine traffic stop during a heat wave in the Watts section of South Central L.A., turned violent when the family of a black motorist jeered at police as they were attempting to arrest him on charges of drunken driving.

The incident unleashed years of tension between the police and the minority communities of Los Angeles, sparking riots city wide. Thirty-four people, mostly black, were killed and hundreds were injured. Six days after the riots began, they ended with the Watts neighborhood in charred ruins.

A special commission headed by the former CIA chief, John McCone, urged that the police department improve its relations with the community and find a more efficient way to address complaints of abuse.

The city would explode again into deadly rioting more than two decades later after Los Angeles officers caught on videotape pummeling black motorist Rodney King were acquitted of wrongdoing. Two of the officers were later found guilty in a federal civil rights trial. Again, a special commission, headed by Warren Christopher, who would later become the U.S. Secretary of State, recommended widespread change in the department.

An ‘Overly-Aggressive’ Culture

Erwin Chereminsky, a professor at the University of Southern California who was asked by the Los Angeles police union to study the most recent scandal and the department’s internal investigation of it, said the LAPD has missed opportunities over the years to implement reforms.

“This is the worst scandal in Los Angeles history,” Chemerinsky said “You have police planting evidence to frame innocent people and then lying in court to gain convictions. This shows a tremendously serious problem in the police department that has to be dealt with.”

In a report released earlier this month, Chereminsky criticized the department’s internal review for not going far enough in identifying the scope of the corruption problem and pointed to the “paramilitary, overly-aggressive policing” culture as a root of the problems.

Chereminsky, who interviewed several dozen police officers for his report, said he found that poor morale among the officers was also a systemic problem.

“When [Former Chief] Willie Williams was here, we thought morale could not go any lower,” said Ted Hunt, president of the Police Protection League, the officers’ union. “But it is so bad. I can’t compare it.”

Hunt said the department’s troubles can be traced to a lack of management oversight and accountability, the absence of effective community policing programs and the inability to attract and retain good officers because of poor working conditions, pay and benefits.

Widespread Corruption?

While the investigation in Los Angeles has primarily focused on the Rampart Division, which covers an eight-square mile area west of downtown and home to many new immigrants, some question whether the problem is more widespread.

James Fyfe, a Temple University professor who consulted on police corruption cases in Los Angeles in the 1980s and early 1990s, said he found evidence of wrongdoing in several different units of the department. He said certain units seemed to have “a specific license to do what they did and no one ever seemed to do anything about them.”

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