Officer Politics

Recent police department scandals are a result of increased federal involvement and racial hiring practices.

Dave Kopel and Mike Krause

The American Outlook, May/June 2001. En Español.

In September of last year, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) became the largest police department in U.S. history to submit to federal government control, through a voluntary consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). This sort of court-ordered supervision of local police departments is becoming an increasingly frequent solution to corruption and brutality scandals. But as the Los Angeles scandal illustrates, over-federalization is one of the major causes of the problem in the first place.

The Los Angeles scandal, the worst in the long-troubled LAPD's history, began in the Rampart Division, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in America. Rampart covers eight square crime-ridden miles west of downtown Los Angeles. With 375,000 residents and 350 police officers, the barrios of Rampart are home to the highest concentration of gang members in all of Los Angeles: sixty gangs, comprising as many as eight thousand members. The Rampart Division also routinely leads the city in homicides, drug activity, and violent-crime arrests.

In August 1998, Rampart police officer Rafael Perez was arrested on charges of stealing eight pounds of cocaine from a police evidence room. Just before his second trial, in September 1999 (the first resulted in a mistrial), Perez plea-bargained to a five-year term--in exchange for divulging information about what has become one of the worst police corruption scandals in American history. Perez recounted that many Rampart officers planted drugs or guns on innocent suspects, knowingly made false arrests, assaulted innocent people, shot people illegally, and perjured themselves extensively. Some even robbed a bank.

The fallout from the still-developing scandal has been enormous. More than a hundred criminal convictions have been overturned, with hundreds more under review. Dozens of LAPD officers have been relieved of duty, suspended, or fired or have quit, and many more are under investigation. Officers have been charged with crimes ranging from perjury to attempted murder. In September 1999, LAPD Chief Bernard Parks convened an internal Board of Inquiry, which reported that similar problems also existed in the Central 77th and Southeast stations.

The pressure increased in August 2000 when a federal judge ruled that the LAPD could be sued under federal racketeering (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations [RICO]) statutes for civil rights violations. Under RICO, the one-year statute of limitations that would normally apply is extended to ten years, and the city's potential 100-million-dollar liability would be tripled. To forestall such a disaster, the city of Los Angeles entered into a consent decree with the DOJ in September, allowing federal oversight of the LAPD. The DOJ has sued or investigated more than a dozen cities, including Pittsburgh and Columbus, in pursuit of similar decrees, but the Los Angeles consent decree is unusual for two reasons. First, the LAPD is one of the largest metropolitan police departments in the world; and second, the department's quick capitulation to federal demands was quite different from the usual local pattern of vigorously fighting against federal takeovers.

Rampart may have been the police corruption story of the year, but Los Angeles is hardly alone in its troubles. In 1995, six Atlanta police officers were convicted or pled guilty to corruption charges, and five others were suspended. In New Orleans, more than eleven police officers were convicted in a 1994 cocaine distribution and murder-for-hire scandal. Between 1992 and 1996, thirty police from Manhattan's 30th Precinct were convicted of crimes, mostly narcotics-related offenses. And the list goes on, including Detroit, Chicago, Miami, and Washington, D.C. According to a 1998 General Accounting Office (GAO) report, of 950 FBI–led corruption cases opened against law enforcement officers between 1993 and 1997, 640 resulted in convictions.

Fostering Corruption

The facts behind the Rampart scandal offer some insights into what is going wrong within some American law enforcement organizations. Many of the abuses within the Rampart Division were perpetrated by members of special anti-gang Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) units, of which Perez was a member. These CRASH units were created in the late 1980s to quell rising gang violence. But as the LAPD Board of Inquiry noted, "The subcommittee found a general lack of adequate supervision among CRASH units, [and] many other specialized units seem to suffer from the same problem." CRASH officers would often sign their own booking recommendations and arrest reports, even though the LAPD required that these forms be signed by sergeants or other superior officers.

Also, despite the express anti-gang purpose of the units, many CRASH arrests were general drug arrests not involving gangsters. "This suggests a philosophy of productivity for the sake of numbers," observed the LAPD Board of Inquiry. In practice, the CRASH units degenerated into little more than autonomous general police squads. CRASH members were no more experienced or better trained than other officers, and the Rampart corruption incidents highlight the dangers that result from the creation of special police units outside the normal command structure.

These problems are not unique to CRASH and Los Angeles. Chicago broke up its Gang Crimes Unit in the wake of a drug protection and distribution scandal that hit the news in December 1998. In Albuquerque, the city's Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team was dismantled after a study by Sam Walker of the University of Nebraska found that "the rate of killings by the police was just off the charts." And again in Los Angeles in the mid-1990s, twenty-seven sheriff's deputies were convicted of skimming millions of dollars in drug money while serving on an "elite narcotics unit."

It is difficult to believe that the Rampart scandal and other such disasters would have been possible without the drug war. Planting evidence on people was one of the most frequent misdeeds of the Rampart officers. Because drug laws (like gun laws) are premised on the criminalization of mere possession of a small object, framing people is quite easy. At Rampart, the police lied not just when testifying against people they had framed, but routinely, in order to gather evidence. "Rampart CRASH officers frequently reported that suspects discarded contraband by tossing it on the ground within clear view of officers only a few feet away," observed the Board of Inquiry, though this is an obviously unlikely occurrence.

Framing for possession is made even easier by the severe mandatory penalties for possessory offenses. A defendant being framed may still plead guilty if the plea bargain will result in a lesser term than the five- or fifteen-year mandatory sentence he may face if he demands a jury trial and the jury believes the police officer. Even someone as dim-witted as Inspector Clouseau can figure out that many "dropped in plain view" evidence reports are "testilying." Therefore, the police commanders who accept such reports, the district attorneys who prosecute on this evidence, and the judges who accept such false testimony are all knowingly abetting illegal police conduct. Thus the sphere of corruption widens.

It should be noted that the Rampart scandal was discovered only after Officer Perez was caught stealing cocaine from a police evidence room. The 1998 GAO report shows that "on average, over half the police officers convicted as a result of corruption investigations were convicted of drug-related offenses."

More but Not Better

Although drug policy can provide a temptation for police officers to line their pockets illegally, an even greater factor is the departments' hiring practices--and the federal-government policies imposed on them. The LAPD Board of Inquiry report stresses this with its very first words: "The major cause in the lack of integrity in American police officers is mediocrity." The report, however, did not identify the major causes of police mediocrity--poor hiring practices: too-rapid expansion of police forces, plus race and sex discrimination in hiring.

When Dick Riordan campaigned for mayor of Los Angeles in 1993, he promised to add three thousand new police officers. Riordan kept his promise, swelling the LAPD to nearly ten thousand officers, with the aid of federal funding. But were all these new hires as qualified as those currently on the force--a department already blackened by corruption? In a poll of LAPD employees conducted by the Board of Inquiry, "Respondents overwhelmingly pointed to the Department's lowered hiring standards as a major factor in the breakdown of integrity and ethical standards."

Federal grants included in the 1994 Clinton crime bill provided the funds for many of these new hires. The LAPD also kept hiring more rapidly than it should have, because the department was required to prevent force attrition or face the loss of federal grant money. Thus President Clinton's 1994 legislation to put a hundred thousand more police officers on the street could accurately be described as a plan to give deadly weapons and life-or-death power to a hundred thousand people who did not meet the standards to be hired as police officers in 1993.

Of course, if there were already an oversupply of highly qualified applicants, federal hiring subsidies might not do any harm. But the number of quality applicant for jobs with a starting salary in the low $20,000s to low $30,000s has been shrinking. And to make matters worse, most big-city police departments are not allowed to hire the best applicants in the pool. They must reject qualified applicants because of their race or sex in order to hire less-qualified applicants with various preferred characteristics. In Los Angeles, for example, the LAPD maintains five separate civil service hiring lists for police candidates: black, Hispanic, female, bilingual Asian/Pacific Islander, and all other. (The last category apparently includes white males, Indian males, and monolingual Asian/Pacific Islander males.)

Although many police departments voluntarily discriminate on the basis of race and sex, the LAPD's hiring practices are different in being the result of previous consent decrees intended to remedy past discrimination by the department. The LAPD is now 14 percent black, 32 percent Hispanic, 5 percent Asian, and 18 percent female. But racial diversity in the LAPD did not stop the Rampart scandal from happening.

Minorities Pay

Unfortunately, when police departments discriminate in this way, poor and minority civilians suffer the most. An article in Economic Inquiry last year by Yale economist John Lott quantified the problem. Looking at data from 1987, 1990, and 1993 for a wide variety of American cities, Lott examined the effect of consent decrees that impose race-conscious hiring requirements on police departments. He found that race-based hiring results in substantial increases in crime rates. Presumably, these hiring practices lower the qualifying standards to allow the hiring of recruits who have less education, less previous employment experience, and more criminal or financial troubles in their own background, and who are younger than those found in departments in which race does not matter. The effects of the resulting crime increase are felt most severely in the highly urbanized neighborhoods where so many poor and minority citizens live. Aggravating the decline in police quality is the fact that the typical race-based consent decree increases the size of the police department by about one-third over time.

Consent decrees requiring race-conscious hiring may, of course, be a legitimate remedy against employers who have been proven to have discriminated. But when such remedies are imposed on police departments, more people--especially more inner-city minorities--are raped, robbed, murdered, and victimized by police corruption. Until the job pool of qualified police officers becomes much larger, increased harm to minority citizens will be the inevitable effect when courts impose racial quotas on police departments.

Naturally, as federal laws and decrees cause more chaos in local police departments, the feds' response is to take an even firmer grip on crime policies. Exercising power under section five of the Fourteenth Amendment, in 1994 Congress authorized the DOJ's Civil Rights Division to bring lawsuits against local police abuses that form a "pattern and practice" of violating constitutional rights. Under the new law, the DOJ brought a 1997 suit against the Pittsburgh police department, demanding the appointment of an independent auditor, creation of an officer tracking system, a written report by officers whenever force is used, and extra training for officers who have an unusually high number of excessive-force complaints. Litigation is underway in pursuit of a similar order for Columbus, Ohio, and a dozen other cities are currently under investigation.

The particular standards of the federal consent decrees, however, ensure that the effort to deal with the problem officers will also cause trouble for the good ones. An officer committing more than a certain number of uses of force within a year--no matter how legally justified--must be "counseled" by a lieutenant. Likewise, an officer may be counseled, transferred, or sent for retraining based on a certain number of complaints against him, even if all of the complaints are anonymous and none of them are proven to be true.

Hence, although the 1997 federal law is legitimate in principle, one should not expect too much from it. The DOJ had been investigating the LAPD since 1996 and failed to discover the Rampart abuses, let alone stop them. Nor does the DOJ appear to be selecting targets based on the "pattern and practice" standard of the statute. In Columbus, for example, the DOJ is seeking to put the police department under a court order based on only three alleged cases of misconduct.

Structural reforms to the LAPD (the Board of Inquiry alone made more than one hundred recommendations) and federal oversight may help, but they do not address the quality problems caused by federal subsidies for police hiring and by race and sex discrimination in hiring. Therefore, the only long-term solution will be for police departments to stop focusing on quantity and to start improving the quality of new police hires.  President Bush's plan to allow the expiration of the temporary Clinton subsidy for police hiring thus represents a step forward for police policy.

Dave Kopel is research director of the Independence Institute. Mike Krause is a research associate at the Independence Institute,

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