Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck. Photo by John Schreiber.
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck. Photo by John Schreiber.

Addressing critics who say racial profiling is still a significant problem for the police department, Chief Charlie Beck said Tuesday that while he believes bias is not “rampant” among officers, he hopes to build more trust between police and the community.

Beck made the comments after a special Police Commission meeting that was intended to re-open a dialogue into the issue of racial profiling, or biased policing.

The gathering marked one of the first times in months in which a meeting by the oversight panel was not disrupted by people protesting Beck and the department’s policing practices.

“Do I think that biased policing is rampant? Absolutely not,” Beck told reporters. “Do I think it occurs? Of course it does.”

Beck said he felt the best way to address bias was “through exercises that build trust, on the police side and on the community’s side.”

The Police Commission helped facilitate one of those “exercises,” holding the special meeting at City Hall on racial profiling, which the department has traditionally measured by investigating and mediating complaints submitted by residents.

While the department receives many biased-policing complaints, very few are sustained, leading many activists to wonder whether the department is using an effective means of measuring and rooting out profiling.

They argue that counter to the small number of sustained complaints, racial profiling is a major problem because black and Latino residents are still being subjected to police stops or targeted by police at far higher frequencies than white residents.

Police department officials Tuesday acknowledged that determining whether there is racial profiling can be difficult, but said they have been diligent in their efforts to try to prevent it.

Officers are screened for bias during recruitment and receive training to make them more aware of bias, including the type that is unconsciously held.

The department also makes an effort to foster deeper relationships with the community through “community policing” programs, they said.

The meeting offered activists and critics more time than usual to put forward their own suggestions for how the department could improve its policing practices, and many lauded a presentation by L. Song Richardson, a UC Irvine law professor who gave a primer on unconscious or “implicit” bias.

Richardson said most people are affected by implicit bias, and it is often a way to make decisions or come to conclusions efficiently during ambiguous situations.

Such biases can often be instilled through the social environment and culture, she said.

Social scientists who measure the effects of implicit bias have found that people of all races and ages learn biases that cast black men in a negative light much more often than their white counterparts, Richardson told the commission.

Such biases also occur in people who believe strongly that all people should be treated equally, she said.

In the context of policing, implicit biases have the potential of escalating tense encounters or can lead officers to interpret non-threatening actions in a black or Latino person as aggression, she said.

Richardson recommended “structural” changes that promote less-biased behavior in officers, saying that just making officers aware of implicit bias is not enough.

Richardson said that rather than creating incentives that reward officers’ ability to issue citations and make arrests — leading to an effect that punishes more minority residents than whites — the department should consider rewarding officers for developing a better bond with the community.

Also addressing the commission was Peter Bibring, a lawyer with American Civil Liberties Union, who argued that black and Latino people are stopped by the Los Angeles Police Department at much higher rates than whites.

Bibring said it shows “there is a problem” with racial profiling, and that it’s “not just a perception problem.”

Union officials representing rank-and-file police officers said Tuesday that in order to do the kind of community-oriented police work promoted by the department at such hearings, they need more staffing.

They say that while they are validated by the department’s report on efforts to prevent racial profiling and the survey results showing the majority of residents have positive feelings about them, “our officers lack the time and resources to conduct proactive community policing that is the bedrock to building productive relationships that help keep neighborhoods safe.”

“The residents and police officers of Los Angeles deserve” a new approach to “community policing,” their statement said, “but that will require policymakers to roll up their sleeves and match their rhetoric with action.”

–City News Service 

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