Helping Police Stay Lawful

Reforming a police department can be extraordinarily difficult. Traditions, loyalties, and attitudes are often ingrained. But few jobs are more important to a city's reputation and its civic harmony.

Los Angeles has been faced with this task for more than a decade, and it may have reached a turning point last week when it accepted a plan largely forced on it by the US Justice Department, which threatened a suit.

Some reforms have been on the table for years, going back to the Rodney King beating and a commission that recommended, among other things, a tracking system to spot officers repeatedly accused of brutality.

That system is among the measures now accepted by the city. Others are the formation of a special unit to investigate shootings and other extreme uses of force, and mandatory collection of data on the race of each person stopped by the police. A federal monitor will keep an eye on the implementation of reforms.

It's sad that a major city's police department should come to this. Some of the mandated steps - notably expanded record-keeping on suspects stopped by officers - could burden the department with paperwork.

Preferably, local police would function efficiently and fairly under local supervision. But such supervision has too often failed with the LAPD. The most recent evidence of that is the Ramparts scandal, which brought to light corrupt activities by officers assigned to reduce gang violence. Policemen were found to have planted evidence and used violence in order to amass convictions.

Los Angeles's police problems are in some ways unique to that city, but they point to issues facing many police departments. A prime example is the suspicion that officers frequently concentrate their efforts on minorities because they assume blacks or Hispanics are more likely to be criminals.

The reforms under way in Los Angeles should help strengthen that city's law-enforcement record. And they should stir some useful self-examination on the part of many other police departments.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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