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Does the LAPD Deserve Its Reputation for Racism and Brutality?

The killing of a homeless man on Skid Row has raised new questions about one of America's most notorious police departments.

On Thursday morning, the LAPD shot and killed a pursuit suspect after a car crash in North Hollywood. While details are still coming in, the encounter came just on the heels of Sunday's killing of a Los Angeles homeless man on a Skid Row sidewalk. That shooting, which was caught on tape, was greeted with grave shakes of the head from critics of law enforcement the world over. It seemed inevitable that LAPD Chief Charlie Beck would call this a tragedy in his official statement on the killing, before going on to defend the actions of his officers. And that's exactly what he did.

Incidents like that line up with the popular conception of the LAPD as a racist institution, a reputation carried over from the days of the Rodney King riots and the OJ Simpson investigation. But Los Angeles hasn't been one of the primary settings for the police brutality backlash of the past year. In fact, just four years ago, the New York Timescalled the LAPD a "department transformed, offering itself up—in a way that not so many years ago would have been unthinkable—as a model police agency for the United States."

The tone of the reaction to Sunday's killing wasn't an expression of disappointment in an ostensibly reformed department, though. It was furious, with protesters calling for Chief Charlie Beck's resignation. The LAPD is kinda like the band Hanson, then—carrying on, even making strides toward improvement, but in the eyes of its critics, permanently scarred by the past.

When I asked Joe Domanick, associate director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a past critic of the LAPD, he told me the department has improved drastically. He said the past two police chiefs, William Bratton and Charlie Beck, "have done a really good job of demilitarizing the LAPD and greatly reduced the disrespect, discourtesy, and violence that the LAPD has traditionally dealt out to African Americans and poor people in general."

But that's hard to swallow when someone's life has been lost. Has the department improved so much that they don't deserve to be thought of as among America's worst anymore? And are there numbers to prove it?

The short answer is that it's very hard to say with any degree of certainty, partly because statistics on police brutality are notoriously scarce and sometimes unreliable.

For instance, late last year, the LA Times Homicide Report presented the sidewalk chalk message above, which claimed that the "LAPD killed one person per week since 2000. 82 percent were black or brown." The numbers are horrifying at face value, but as the Times story pointed out, they probably shouldn't be taken at face value.

The chalk statistician was most likely referring to a Youth4Justice.org infographic that suggested 589 people were killed by officers in Los Angeles County—not just the city—from 2000 through August of last year, meaning multiple departments and jurisdictions were involved. There are about 10 million people in the County of Los Angeles, compared to about 3.9 million in the city. There may be about one killing per week in the county, but only 38 percent of those killings are carried out by the LAPD.

It's not like no one's trying to get the math right. The CDC operates something called the National Violent Death Reporting System, and Philip Cook, a Duke University professor of public policy, pointed out to me that while it only operates in 17 states, "for those states, it has detailed information on homicides, including a category for homicide victims who died at the hands of the police." Unfortunately, California isn't one of those 17 states, so LAPD numbers aren't represented.

Some kind of national average would help to put all this in perspective. Of course, in the modern dystopia that is the United States, we have no reliable data, as the Washington Post's Wesley Lowry pointed out last year at the height of the "Hands Up Don't Shoot" protests:

Criminal justice experts note that, while the federal government and national research groups keep scads of data and statistics—on topics ranging from how many people were victims of unprovoked shark attacks (53 in 2013) to the number of hogs and pigs living on farms in the U.S. (upwards of 64,000,000 according to 2010 numbers)—there is no reliable national data on how many people are shot by police officers each year.

So we have no official national stat, but there are some—again somewhat crude—numbers on how many Americans the police kill every year, and it seems to be about 1,100 people, making LA's share a drop in a very tragic bucket.

The second sentence in the LA chalk message—"82 percent [of people killed by police] were black or brown"—was also fact-checked by the LA Times. The paper found it to be in the ballpark of the number it came up with: about 77 percent. Minorities really are being killed by the LAPD at much higher rates than whites.

But as Chief Beck pointed out two months ago to NPR, the LAPD is 45 percent Hispanic, 13 percent African-American, and minority white male. The numbers at least somewhat reflect the city's racial makeup, meaning what we saw in Ferguson—a mostly white power structure using force against a mostly black populace—doesn't quite track here.

Of course, that doesn't mean the LAPD is free of the bias that was demonstrated by Joshua Correll's seminal work on police bias, " The Police Officer's Dilemma." That video game–based experiment not only found that African Americans are instantly viewed as threats more often than whites, but it also demonstrated "equivalent levels of bias" among both African-American and white participants.

In 2007, LA cops attacked a peaceful demonstration against an immigration crackdown in MacArthur Park, seemingly for no reason, other than the fact that they were "on autopilot," according to Domanick. He says the incident was frustrating because it was "so typical" of the LAPD. But Bratton, then the chief of police, dealth with the aftermath in a way that was new and impressive.

"Bratton handled it in really the best possible way: admitting it was wrong, sanctioning the people in charge of it, and ordering new training," Domanick said.

(While historians might call Bratton a force for good when it comes to the legacy of LAPD, he's since moved back to his old gig as NYPD commissioner, and is somewhat less beloved serving that role.)

Raw numbers on use-of-force and race relations in police departments are urgently needed, but so is perspective. Every death at the hands of police is more than just a statistic. In an interview with the New York Times about Sunday's Skid Row killing, Steve Soboroff of the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners asked that the case not be compared to the death of Eric Garner in New York. "We are not the same police force, we don't have the same procedure, and these cases were not similar."

The LAPD's PR problems have probably actually hastened improvements. In the years that followed the Rodney King beating, an event that practically invented citizen surveillance of the cops in modern America, then-LAPD Chief Willie Williams introduced more scrutiny into the department's use-of-force policies, and furthered the cause of so-called "community policing."

The push for community policing is alive and well under Chief Beck, according to Domanick, but that certainly hasn't turned Los Angeles into a place where people live in harmony with law enforcement. As always, there is more work to be done.

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