In L.A., trying to keep a lid on racial strife

Recent killing of a black youth stirs tensions between police and neighborhoods 13 years after King riots.

At Leimert Park, a gathering place for demonstrations and rallies in south-central Los Angeles, the thunder of djembe drums adds a dramatic accompaniment to a long queue of local protest speakers. As each steps up to a microphone planted in the grass, their words seem to ring with echoes of an earlier violent era in the battle for civil rights.

"The time is now," yells one protestor to the crowd of about 350 holding placards and signs. "No more police terrorism."

The occasion, a community-wide gathering to protest the killing of a 13-year-old African-American youth by Los Angeles police, has become another major flashpoint in Los Angeles race relations. For several weeks, black leaders have held meetings and marches to draw attention to the shooting as evidence that the LAPD has not budged in its decades-old culture of riding herd over ethnic residents as adversaries rather than citizens to "serve and protect."

It's been more 10 years since the LAPD became the international poster child for dysfunctional policing - first in the Rodney King beating, then with two trials of O.J. Simpson. Now, the high-profile incident of Devin Brown - who was shot and killed by police when he refused orders to stop fleeing in a stolen car - once again raises the question of how much police reform, if any, has occurred since the largest riots in US history here raised public consciousness of the problem of police abuse.

Despite the anger in Leimert Park, there is some consensus that much improvement has been made throughout American police departments. Yet there is also consensus that the patterns of racist behavior exhibited by police have not been adequately addressed.

"You might say the policy, training, and equipment side of American policing has come a long way since Rodney King but that the human side, police interacting with residents, has come less far," says Mary Powers, director of the National Coalition on Police Accountability (NCOPA).

Accomplishments include policy changes regarding how and when to use force and in what form. They also include better cultural and sensitivity training, and community-based policing. All have brought more police into direct contact with the neighborhoods they serve.

In addition, more cities now have civilian committees with the leverage to formally hold police departments accountable for questionable actions.

Negative perceptions persist

At the same time, not enough has been accomplished to better police-community race relations, say experts. In this regard, they say, Los Angeles is a case in point for problems nationwide.

"I think racism is the problem here," says Mary Alice Jones of the Congress of Racial Equality. She points out that 83 percent of LAPD officers do not live within city limits and many appear to have had little exposure to racial diversity.

To her and others, the Devin Brown shooting is only one incident in a much larger pattern of negative police actions. Just four days prior to that shooting, officials here announced they would not prosecute a June incident in which a LAPD officer struck a car thief suspect 11 times with a flashlight. And in January, two white cops won a jury verdict of $2.4 million in a discrimination suit for being wrongly terminated following a 2002 beating of another black suspect.

Better police training still needed

But other observers say there simply has not been enough focus on police training in the specific area of emergency response. That means better understanding of the complexity of one's own reflexes and emotions when life or death decisions must be made in seconds.

Here in Los Angeles, Ms. Powers and others say, there are still deeply ingrained behaviors in the "police culture" that are strong enough to survive new chiefs of police, city council changes, and turnovers of mayors and oversight boards. Codes of silence, in which police officers refuse to rat on colleagues for wrongdoing, undermine efforts to establish accountability.

"You can pass all the policy guideline changes, have ... blue ribbon commissions, [but] one thing that has not changed is the fundamental core component that courses through everything involving the LAPD: the violent, confrontational mentality of the LAPD," says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, author of several books on the African-American experience in US culture.

Despite widespread feelings that little improvement has been made in police-community relations here, several black leaders have defended the LAPD in the wake of the current shooting.

Tangible progress noted

"It is absolutely incorrect that no progress has been made within the LAPD ranks," says Bernard Parks, an African-American city council member and the former LAPD chief. "Training has evolved, cultural sensitivity has evolved, accountability and discipline have evolved. You must realize that police officers are human beings in dynamic situations that may take someone's life. If anyone thinks there is perfectionism, they are going to be disappointed."

There are also African-Americans willing to point the finger at the actions of black perpetrators that have led to police confrontations. "Many in black neighborhoods ... seem to forget that in every one of these run-ins with police ... there has been at the core of the incident, an African-American breaking the law and resisting arrest," says Ted Hayes, who runs temporary housing for the homeless.

NCOPA's Mary Powers and other national observers also see progress. She points to three recent examples: a change in the shooting policy for officers regarding moving cars, the use of flashlights in beating suspects, and high-speed pursuits.

But many feel that an underlying culture of racism will continue to exacerbate the problem of police and community relations. "In the 1960s and '70s we were suing police departments all over the country insisting that if we changed the racial makeup of the police, we would end police brutality," says Ramona Ripston, director of the southern California chapter of ACLU. "Well, we did integrate them and guess what, it [police abuse] didn't change."

She and other experts here call for more stringent policies that require police to live in the communities they serve.

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