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Criminal Justice

LA Sheriff's Department Named In Audit Identifying Bias Among Police And Prison Agencies

A Los Angeles Sheriff's Department police cruiser sedan sits in front of a bank of payphones on a sidewalk in front of a fenced-off concrete building labeled as Los Angeles County Sheriff Men's Central Jail
Outside view of the Men Central Jail, amid the Covid 19 pandemic, May 12, 2020, in Los Angeles, California. - Cases of COVID-19 in the Los Angeles County jail system have spiked by nearly 60% in the span of a week, according to numbers reported on May 12, 2020 by Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
(VALERIE MACON
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AFP via Getty Images)
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Police departments and state prisons aren’t doing enough to identify and punish bias among their officers and the state should do more to combat the problem, a state audit found.

The audit, released this morning, recommended that the state Justice Department more regularly investigate how local police departments and sheriff’s offices handle such alleged incidents, and also urged expanding the authority of the Racial and Identity Profiling Advisory Board to verify that departments are actually implementing their bias policies.

Police departments erred by focusing only on blatant instances of bias, the audit found, and relied heavily on officers’ denials of bias, prematurely dismissed complaints and failed to consider how officers’ conduct could appear “to a reasonable person.”

The audit found “poor investigation practices” at three of the five departments it reviewed. The departments “often did not reach a formal conclusion about bias even when the facts in a case indicated that such a conclusion would be reasonable.”

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It contended that the Los Angeles Sheriff’s office, San Bernardino Police and Stockton Police each prematurely dismissed at least one complaint alleging biased conduct. In one, it said, an officer accused a Black man of playing the “race card” and went on to say he wishes “we lived in a world, back in the (19)60s and (19)70s, where we could feel comfortable”— a statement that, the audit notes, “overlooks the negative experiences of many Black Americans during that era.” Yet an internal investigation concluded that the officer had behaved appropriately.

The audit, requested by the joint Legislative Audit Committee, also examined officers at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and San Jose Police.

Among its recommendations:

  • The Legislature should create a definition of biased conduct and require law enforcement departments to use that definition in bias investigations
  • The Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training should conduct interviews and obtain character references for prospective officers, and develop guidance for screening applicants’ social media posts
  • The Justice Department should establish guidelines for local third-party groups to investigate misconduct, and any department without an independent review group should be regularly audited by the Justice Department 

CalMatters has found that civilian oversight can have a dramatic effect on the rate of sustained complaints of police misconduct at departments.

While the audit found no officers with affiliations to hate groups in its review of 753 officers, it faulted the departments’ lack of internal controls, which could identify prejudiced officer behavior and require appropriate retraining or discipline.

“The biased conduct that we identified at the five law enforcement departments likely occurred in part because the departments have not fully implemented comprehensive strategies for addressing bias within their organizations,” the audit said.

The audit acknowledged that the incidents it surfaced involved only a small number of officers at each department — attributable in part, it said, to the fact that it looked at a sampling. “Moreover,” it said, “the behavior of even a few officers can erode a community’s trust in law enforcement and damage the relationship between a department and the community it serves.”

Of the six instances of bias found in the audit, one was a statement defending the Proud Boys and accusing the group’s opponents as “in reality just against masculinity.” The same officer posted transphobic and anti-Asian sentiments, the audit found.

Two officers posted messages or images in support of the Three Percenters, which the Southern Poverty Law Center identifies as an anti-government ideology.

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A fourth officer liked an anti-immigrant group not identified in the audit, another one promoted posts saying same-sex parents are harmful to their children and the sixth officer liked a social media page praising the Confederacy.

The problem, experts say, is that measures to combat extremism as it exists today are an antiquated cure for an evolving threat.

“It’s not like being in the Mafia or joining the Klan,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “These brick-and-mortar hate groups are disappearing. There’s no Kiwanis Club of Evil out there.”

In their place are amorphous, non-hierarchical groups that form principally online, like the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers.

“The bottom line is, the fact that we’re finding even these examples in the most obvious and stupidly, publicly conveyed circumstances tells you a lot,” Levin said. “We’re picking up a limited set of lightning strikes but missing a lot of the storm damage that comes in.”

Social media posts by police officers cited in the audit mocked transgender women and those of Mexican descent. One post attaches a photo of the 9/11 attacks, mentions Muslims and ends with the caption “They swore they would destroy us from within.”

Another post claims “620,000 white people” died to end slavery and yet received “not even 1 thank you and now we’re known as racists.”

While there’s no definition of bias in California law, the incidents described in the audit hew closely to the U.S. Department of Justice’s definition of “hate incidents,” in which no crime occurred but are instead “acts of prejudice that are not crimes and do not involve violence, threats, or property damage.”

In at least three other states and Washington, D.C., legislation intended to flush extremists from the ranks of law enforcement have run into legislative opposition. Bills in Oregon, Minnesota and Tennessee aimed to either increase screening of police officers or make it easier to remove those with ties to hate groups. Groups aligned with law enforcement say such measures impinge on officers’ First Amendment rights.

In California, some law enforcement groups echoed those concerns.

What questions do you have about Southern California?