HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Los Angeles:

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Race has often played a role in police abuse cases in Los Angeles, with minority residents believing that white officers (most of whom live in predominantly white suburbs) are overly aggressive and abusive in minority communities.15 According to the Christopher Commission: "The problem of excessive force is aggravated by racism and bias" within the LAPD. More than one-quarter of 650 officers responding to a survey said "an officer's prejudice towards the suspect's race may lead to the use of excessive force."16 MDT transmissions - typed messages between patrol cars or stations - revealed racial animosities among some officers. Just as troubling as the content of these messages was the officers' lack of concern that they would be held accountable for hateful and violent messages sent via the MDT system. The LAPD had clear rules about not using certain language or racial/sexual bias on the system and, if the officers had feared any kind of accountability, they would not have boasted of using excessive force against minority suspects.

In addition to the racial attitudes expressed on the MDT system, African-Americans and Latinos have long complained that when they are stopped for even minor traffic infractions, they are "proned out" or forced to lie face down, flat on the ground with their arms outstretched.17 Whites who are stopped for traffic or other minor violations are rarely subjected to this treatment, according to minority rights advocates.

The 1995 O.J. Simpson trial fueled racial tensions in the city, particularly when Det. Mark Fuhrman, who was eventually convicted on perjury charges, denied using racial slurs while audio-tapes existed on which he used the word "nigger" at least forty-one times. In those tapes, he also claimed to have beaten and framed African-American suspects, and stated that Internal Affairs Division (IAD) investigators knew what he was doing but did not hold him accountable. The Justice Department initiated a review of the allegations in 1995; three years later, federal prosecutorsdetermined that the five-year statute of limitations had long passed in relation to the allegations against Fuhrman and decided not to prosecute him.18

Another source of racial tension was the LAPD's use of K-9 (police dog) units, which during the late 1980s and early 1990s were concentrated in minority areas and were trained to find suspects and bite them, even when there was no resistance offered by the suspect.19 Biting was only avoided if the handler called the dog off; in some cases, the dog handlers allowed the dogs to bite suspects who had been subdued. On average, there was one dog bite per day, according to attorneys challenging the policy.20 In 1992 several civil rights groups presented evidence that the dog handlers had used excessive force and called for a review of the K-9 units' handlers, which, according to attorneys involved in the case, has never taken place.21 According to attorneys in the case, none of the dog handlers appeared on the list of "problem officers" compiled by the Christopher Commission. Indeed, according to an attorney involved in monitoring the unit, at least four of the K-9 unit's officers have been promoted to sergeant posts.22 In 1995, the civil case challenging the policy was settled, with the city paying $3.6 million, and the policy was changed from "find and bite" to "find and bark."23

15 ACLU of Southern California, "From the Outside In," March 1994. According to the OIG, approximately 85 percent of all LAPD employees live outside of the city of Los Angeles. OIG, "Domestic Violence in the Los Angeles Police Department: The report of the Domestic Violence Task Force," July 1997, p. i.

16 Christopher Commission report, p. 69.

17 Ibid., p. 75.

18 Ronald Ostrow, Richard A. Serrano, "Justice dept. won't prosecute Mark Fuhrman," Los Angeles Times, April 3, 1998.

19 See January 7, 1992 report submitted by ACLU of Southern California, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and other civil rights groups to the L.A. Police Commission.

20 Ibid.

21 Telephone interview with attorney Donald Cook, October 20, 1995.

22 Telephone interview with attorney Donald Cook, March 6, 1998. The four officers reportedly promoted were among those with high "bite-ratios" named in the January 1992 report.

23 Christopher Commission report, p. 78.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch