Crime & Justice

3 things to know about police bias and the LAPD

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck at a news conference in October.
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck at a news conference in October.
Nick Ut/AP

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The Los Angeles Police Commission devoted an entire four-hour public hearing to the issue of bias and implicit bias in policing this week.

Commissioners called for the meeting in September after a series of controversial shootings of black and Latino men, and amid increasing pressure to address racial disparities in policing.

At the request of the commission, the LAPD produced a 143-page report on what it’s doing to root out bias and conducted a community survey that found African Americans are the least trusting that  LAPD officers will treat racial and ethnic minorities fairly.

Here are three things that came out of Tuesday’s meeting:

1. Bias is hard to prove

The department has upheld virtually no bias complaint from a resident over the past three years. The report says the department has received more than 1,300 complaints of biased policing by officers over the past four years, but none were upheld by department investigators. It says proving such allegations is “very difficult.”

“Although engaging in biased policing is distinctly unconstitutional, if and when it does occur, it is likely to be hidden in the accused officer’s beliefs rather than conspicuous or overt,” the report stated.

2. Everyone is biased

Even if you eliminated any vestiges of overt racial animus, the LAPD would have its challenges, said UC Irvine Professor of Criminology L. Song Richardson.

One implicit bias in most Americans is one cops can ill afford, she says.

“Most of us, regardless of unconsciously and automatically, associate young black men with criminality and violence,” Richardson told the hearing. “It doesn’t matter whether you consciously believe that or not. Our unconscious minds teach us these associations because we live in this society.”

3. The LAPD is being challenged to do more

The police commission looks like it might hold Chief Charlie Beck’s feet to the fire on the issue of bias.

A moment of drama during the four-hour meeting came when Commissioner Cynthia McClain Hill, an attorney, quizzed Chief Beck about some of the ways the department seeks to build community trust. Programs include Days of Dialogue and the LAPD's intense Community Safety Partnership program, which assigns officers to five year stints often walking foot beats meeting residents.

Here's the exchange:

"Commissioner, it’s been expanded. It’s been, ya know, we’ve we started the," Beck begins.

“I understand. I am simply saying," said McClain-Hill. "Let me finish please."

 “And the department is putting its money where its mouth is on this,” Beck continues.

“No I get it. Let me finish," said McClain-Hill.  My point is simply that this is 2016.” 

A few minutes later, the commissioner finished. 

"Doing more of the same may not be enough," McClain-Hill told the chief.