The Magazine

Targeting the Police

The Holder Justice Department declares open season on big city police departments

Jan 31, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 19 • By HEATHER MAC DONALD
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According to DOJ’s civil rights division, the LAPD does not investigate racial profiling complaints with sufficient intensity. The department seems to tolerate a “culture that is inimical to race-neutral policing,” say the federal attorneys. These accusations are nothing short of delusional. The LAPD is arguably the most professional, community-oriented police agency in the country, having been led for most of the last decade by modern policing’s premier innovator, William Bratton. Moreover, it investigates every racial profiling allegation with an obsessive thoroughness that stands in stark contrast to the frivolity of most profiling accusations. There is no racial profiling complaint so patently fabricated that the department won’t subject to days of painstaking investigation through multiple chains of command. A complainant can outright admit making up the profiling charge in retaliation for being arrested, and the LAPD’s special profiling investigation body, the Constitutional Policing Unit, will continue diligently poring over his complaint as if it had been made in good faith. After the department logs a whopping average of 100 hours on each complaint, devoting more resources to these knee-jerk accusations than to any other kind of alleged officer misbehavior, the LAPD’s civilian inspector general will audit the department’s work with a two-part, 60-question matrix, subjecting claims made by arresting officers to a reflexive skepticism unmoored from reality. The goal of this Byzantine process? To find any possible way not to dismiss complaints as unsubstantiated. 

A recent profiling allegation and its disposition are typical. A driver who had been cited for tinted windows denied in his racial profiling complaint that his windows were tinted and claimed that he was only stopped because he was black. He said that he was detained for an excessive 45 minutes. The arresting officers estimated that the stop lasted 15 minutes; electronic records revealed that it lasted a reasonable 18 minutes. Department personnel interviewed the complainant twice; the arresting officers were closely interrogated; and the Constitutional Policing Unit canvassed local businesses around the stop for video of the interaction. The CPU then made an appointment to photo-graph the driver’s car to confirm that his windows were not tinted; the driver failed to appear at the appointment and later called the LAPD to say that he wanted no further contact from the department on his profiling complaint. 

Leaving aside the devastating hole that the complainant blew in his own credibility by withholding his car, the complaint was logically problematic to begin with. If the driver’s windows were tinted, the cops could not have seen his race, especially since the stop occurred at midnight. Indeed, the complainant himself reported that he had to keep his window rolled down during the stop so that the officer could see into the vehicle. But if the windows were not tinted, it strains credulity that an officer would cite a driver for a violation that could be so easily disproven simply by presenting the car. 

Nevertheless, the LAPD’s inspector general Nicole Bershon, after reviewing the voluminous case history, concluded that the accused officer should not be cleared of the profiling charge and that the department should reopen the investigation—though there was nothing more to investigate. Because the car’s windows had not been inspected, she said, the officer’s claim that he could not see the driver’s race before stopping him could not be adjudicated. Bershon, however, rehabilitated the driver’s credibility on a wholly speculative theory: Because the sergeant who logged the profiling charge asked the driver in passing if he was making the complaint to avoid paying the tinting fine, the complainant lost confidence in the process, Bershon hypothesizes, and as a result went AWOL with his car. Of course, the complainant had already shown enough confidence in the process to sit for two interviews. It was only when it came time to present his car that his painful disillusionment, in Bershon’s imaginary scenario, manifested itself. 

Predictably, Bershon criticizes the intake sergeant for questioning the complainant’s motives, however flippantly. In an ideal world, to be sure, no police officer would ever express the slightest personal opinion in his interactions with civilians. But a station house is not an ideal world; it is peopled with human beings whose daily exposure to the full, sorry range of human behavior breeds in them a certain degree of cynicism. Regrettably, that cynicism occasionally breaks through the surface. The notion of cutting officers any slack for such failings, which, in light of their public service, are in any case relatively minor, is of course out of the question.

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