The New York Times by SOLOMON MOORE - June 16, 2009
LOS ANGELES, CA — The Police Department here has taken significant steps to root out corruption and reduce brutality and racially biased arrests, but it must still do more to eliminate racial disparities in police searches and the use of force, a court-appointed monitor testified on Monday. The department agreed to sweeping reforms in 2001 after the Justice Department found a pattern of police misconduct over a decade that included the videotaped beating of Rodney G. King in 1991 and the Rampart corruption scandal, which involved police officers’ stealing illegal drugs, framing gang members and committing extortion. Federal authorities also determined that the department had engaged in a pattern of excessive force, false arrests and unreasonable searches, especially of members of minorities, because of poor training and insufficient protocols. Supervision of the court-mandated reforms was set to expire Tuesday. At a hearing in federal court, Michael Cherkasky, who has been the monitor of the Police Department for eight years, said more time was needed. Mr. Cherkasky and lawyers for the civil rights division of the Justice Department told Judge Gary A. Feess that oversight should continue for three years, but with the Police Department dealing directly with the court instead of a federal monitor. Nonetheless, Mr. Cherkasky told the court that the department had progressed enough to warrant shifting more authority from federal oversight to the department’s internal monitors.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other critics of the department disputed the idea that the police were ready to institute reforms without the impetus of federal monitoring and urged Judge Feess to extend the consent decree. The judge acknowledged the department’s success in reducing crime and abuses, and he extended the consent decree for two weeks to review arguments on ending federal monitoring. Mr. Cherkasky urged the court to put in place a three-year transitional agreement that would end federal monitoring if the department reduced racial bias in searches and arrests, instituted a financial disclosure policy for certain kinds of investigators and created a better system to gauge problem officers by tracking complaints against them and use of force. “We’re saying these things need to be resolved before we can say that there has been substantial compliance,” he said. “If they do these things, we don’t have a problem with a transitional agreement.”
Under the transitional agreement, Mr. Cherkasky said, he would end his monitoring and the court would directly oversee final reforms by the department. Mr. Cherkasky said that although the Police Department had more work to do, it was “psychologically” important for the court to acknowledge the progress it had made. He said a decision to phase out federal monitoring in Los Angeles could be an encouraging sign to other departments that compliance with court-mandated reforms would eventually end well for agencies that cooperated. Chief William J. Bratton has complained that the consent decree is expensive and unnecessary since the Police Commission and the office of inspector general can fulfill the watchdog function. But Mark Rosenbaum, a lawyer with the A.C.L.U., said Judge Feess should extend federal monitoring until the department ended racially biased policing practices. Mr. Rosenbaum cited recent department statistics that showed officers had used force against African-Americans and Latinos more frequently than against whites. He also said statistics showed that African-Americans were searched by the Los Angeles police more frequently than whites, even though officers were less likely to find evidence of a crime when they searched blacks. “This is still a police force where, unfortunately, race still matters when deciding to frisk or arrest, even when there is no evidence of criminal conduct,” Mr. Rosenbaum said in an interview. Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, and an expert on policing, agreed that the department had made strides since the inception of the consent decree. But Mr. Chemerinsky said it was premature to end the federal court’s role. “If L.A.P.D. has the capacity to make the necessary reforms, the consent decree is at worst unnecessary and redundant,” he said. “At best, it is essential. Why take the chance?”