Racist Remarks Color Image Of LAPD's Thin Blue Line

RELATIONS between police and minority communities in Los Angeles have long been egg-shell fragile.

Now they are threatening to break down again as racial remarks made by one officer reverberate across the city.

The airing of boasts by retired Detective Mark Fuhrman, one of the principal investigators in the O.J. Simpson case, that he targeted minorities for arrest and fabricated evidence is stirring outrage from Watts to Lincoln Heights.

In coming weeks, more of the taped remarks by Mr. Fuhrman are likely to be heard in the courtroom.

Reeling from the criticism, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) is struggling to restore public trust. This week Police Chief Willie Williams called a press conference in hopes of keeping the chasm between the police and those they are sworn to protect from widening.

"I call upon the public to still have strong support for the LAPD, because it's justified," he said Wednesday. "We have a zero-tolerance level for racism, sexism, antisemitism, and any type of discrimination in the Los Angeles Police Department."

An investigation of what is alleged on the tapes is expected once the Simpson trial has been concluded.

But smoothing relations will be difficult. "I think the Fuhrman issue is catastrophic for the police," says local author and historian Mike Davis. "What will follow is even more unrest."

The emergence of the tapes comes at a time when local law-enforcement officials are under more scrutiny than at any time since the riots in 1992.

In just the past few weeks:

*An association of black police officers has filed a federal lawsuit against the police officers' union here. The black policemen and women claim that the Police Protective League - long a predominant player in LAPD politics - has denied the same legal representation to black officers that it provides whites.

*A jury on Wednesday reached its final verdict in a case where 23 sheriff's deputies were convicted of use of excessive force for storming a bridal shower at a Samoan-American home in 1989. The jury awarded the largest ever judgement against the Sheriff's Department, $15.9 million.

*The Los Angeles District Attorney announced last week that because of budget cuts, his office would no longer investigate police wrongdoing. After Sept. 1, there will be no independent body to look into police shootings.

*The Federal Bureau of Investigation has joined local law enforcement officials in an inquiry of an LAPD officer's shooting of teenager Antonio Gutierrez on July 29. The city may be liable for civil-rights violations since the officer who killed Gutierrez was one of 44 identified as problem cops in 1992.

All this comes on the 30th anniversary of the Watts riots, another dark period in police-community relations, and at a time when sensitivities about the Rodney King beating remain raw in some circles.

Mr. Davis blames the lack of reform of the LAPD on the failure of a panel created after the '92 riots to recommend substantive changes. "There was no transformation of an institution," he says "The Christopher Commission focused on 44 bad apples, most of which are still hanging from the tree," he says of problem police officers identified, but not fired.

"It didn't deal with the reality of a police department that has always conceived of itself as a kind of occupying army," he says.

Critics maintain that until the problem police officers are fired, a civilian review board is created to investigate police shootings, more community involvement is developed, and a more ethnically diverse police force is created, the LAPD will not be able to repaired its sullied image.

Police force defenders reply that reform efforts have been stymied by lack of support from the city and a failure to back up calls for change with needed funds. They point to a decline in homicides in 1994 as evidence that the force is doing its job. And they say that only 55 percent of police personnel were white in '94, compared with 69 percent in 1987.

But to Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a black author and activist, budget complaints are excuses. "There are obviously budget constraints, but I have to ask, 'Is this a matter of money or a matter of commitment?'"

"You have to ask yourself," he says "How committed is the LAPD to making substantial reforms?"

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