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Criminal Justice

LAPD Officers Must Now Explain On Camera Why They Plan To Stop A Driver Or Pedestrian

An LAPD police officer points a radar gun at oncoming traffic while standing behind his black-and-white, which is parked at the side of the road perpendicular to the road. A grey pickup truck has just driven past the officer.
Courtesy LAPD via Twitter
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The Los Angeles Police Commission approved a new policy Tuesday that requires LAPD officers to explain on camera why they plan to pull over a car or stop a pedestrian.

The policy is designed to limit pretextual stops — that’s when an officer makes a stop for a minor issue and uses it to search for a more serious crime.

In cases of pretextual stops, officers will now be required to turn on their body camera and explain why they suspect someone of a crime. If they fail to do so, they’ll face retraining and counseling. Further violations will lead to discipline, though it’s not clear what form it will take.

“This revised policy will not result in more crimes, or more guns, or more lawlessness in the city of Los Angeles,” said Commissioner William Briggs. “The current policy harms our Black and Brown communities. The current policy does not stop crime.”

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The change follows an LAPD inspector general investigation that foundpretextual stops lead to people of color being disproportionately stopped and searched, despite their being less likely to have contraband.

“This policy is middle-ground, it is nuanced, and where we hone in on public safety and respect for all members of our community,” said Lizabeth Rhodes, director of the LAPD’s office of constitutional policing.

Implementation will be gradual, LAPD Chief Michel Moore told the commission. “I do not want to rush this in and say it’s effective tomorrow and have mass confusion,” he said, adding that it will take some time to train officers on the new policy.

Going Too Far…Or Not Far Enough?

The union that represents rank-and-file LAPD officers argues the policy change will make it harder for police to do their job. In a statement, the Los Angeles Police Protective League board of directors called Briggs’ comment that the new approach will not lead to more crime or guns on the streets “ludicrous.”

Briggs "should get off his soapbox, do his homework and tell the truth about pretext stops and the important role they play in taking guns off our streets,” the union said, arguing that last year the Newton Division alone confiscated more than 800 guns during traffic and pedestrian stops.

Police reform advocates argued the policy doesn’t go far enough.

“It’s the same song with a different melody,” said Baba Akili with Black Lives Matter Los Angeles during the meeting’s public comment period. Calling pretextual stops “ineffectual and racist,” he said they should be banned outright.

In a Feb. 8 letter to the Commission calling for an end to pretextual stops, a coalition that includes Black Lives Matter-L.A. and the ACLU of Southern California said curtailing them “unless they’re ‘intended to protect public safety’ is incredibly vague and leaves wide-ranging operating room for more of the same racial profiling that’s been a hallmark of the Los Angeles Police Department.”

The commission originally considered the policy earlier in February, but didn’t vote on it to allow time for public comment and for the police union to consider it. Rhodes said the policy was tweaked in response to public comment, noting as an example the inclusion of language about progressive discipline.

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‘Trust Can Be So Easily Degraded’

A 2019 Los Angeles Times investigation found Black and Latino drivers were stopped more often than white drivers despite being less likely to have contraband. It also said police recovered guns in less than 2% of searches, and didn’t find drugs or weapons more than 80% of the time.

LAPD’s inspector general then investigated stops in 2020 and came to a similar conclusion. Pretextual stops “appear to have a disparate impact on certain racial groups, and ... also appear to be relatively ineffective in identifying more serious crimes,” the report said.

“This proposed policy is not the first to be passed in the nation,” said Commissioner Eileen Decker, adding that the state’s Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board is turning its attention to pretextual stops.

L.A. City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson briefly joined the commission meeting to applaud the policy change. “There is a cost that the city pays when we do tens of thousands of stops and get no result,” he said.

“The money is replaceable — you can figure that out,” he said. “What you can’t replace is the extent to which trust can be so easily degraded when a person is stopped, and they can’t figure out why they were stopped.”

Harris-Dawson told commissioners that he knew few men of color who hadn’t been stopped by police for something mundane like a brake light that turned into a larger investigation.

‘An Incredible Attack On Public Safety’

Public comment on the issue was divided.

“Today, I’m still getting pulled over and having my car searched for no reason,” wrote Robert Larks, a 55-year-old Metro bus operator who sent a public comment to LAPD about pretextual stops earlier this month.

“I don’t trust the police,” he said, adding that he has been pulled over multiple times while wearing his Metro uniform.

Other members of the public who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting backed officers who were concerned about the new policy and wanted no limits on pretextual stops.

“It’s an incredible attack on public safety,” said a commenter who introduced himself only as Bill.

“If you’re not allowed to pull people over for doing anything, you might as well keep a fully armed AK-47 in the backseat of your car, because if somebody pisses you off, you can take it out and blow them away,” he said.

Other major cities are also debating pretextual stops. In Philadelphia, a new city law bans all minor traffic stops, but the Philadelphia police union sued the city last week, claiming the new law illegally overrides existing state law.

What questions do you have about criminal justice in Southern California? 
Emily Elena Dugdale covers smaller police departments around Southern California, school safety officers, jails and prisons, and juvenile justice issues. She also covers the LAPD and the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.