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Officer engaged in racial profiling, LAPD probe finds

March 26, 2012 |  3:07 pm

LAPD headquarters. An LAPD officer engaged in racial profiling, an internal probe has concluded

A white police officer targeted Latino drivers for traffic stops because of their race, a Los Angeles Police Department investigation concluded -- marking the first time the agency has found one of its officers guilty of racial profiling.

For decades, the question of racial profiling -- “biased policing,” in LAPD jargon -- has bedeviled the LAPD. Accusations that the practice was commonplace in minority neighborhoods throughout the 1970s and '80s helped earn the LAPD a reputation for bias and abuse of power.

And, despite dramatic reforms that have boosted the department’s image over the last 10 years, the persistence of profiling claims has prevented the agency from shaking its dark past altogether. With hundreds of officers accused of profiling each year, department officials have cleared all of them of wrongdoing, telling exasperated critics that it was all but impossible to determine whether a cop was motivated by racial bias.

The investigation into Patrick Smith, a 15-year veteran who worked alone on a motorcycle assignment in the department’s West Traffic Division, found he was stopping Latinos based on their race and deliberately misidentifying some Latinos as white on his reports -- presumably in an effort to conceal the fact that the people he pulled over were overwhelmingly Latino, according to multiple sources with knowledge of the case who requested that their names not be used because police personnel issues are confidential.

At a meeting last month, LAPD Chief Charlie Beck reviewed the evidence against Smith and heard from members of his command staff who recommended that the officer be found guilty. Beck signed off on the investigation’s findings and ordered Smith sent to a disciplinary hearing, where the department will attempt to have him fired, the sources said. In Los Angeles, the police chief cannot fire an officer unilaterally but instead must let a three-person board hear the case and decide if firing is warranted. Smith had been relieved of duty during the investigation, sources said.

Smith did not respond to an email seeking comment, and the Police Protective League, which represents rank-and-file officers, declined to comment.

John Mack, a member of the department’s civilian oversight board who has pushed in recent years for reforms in how profiling investigations are conducted, said the case signaled “a giant step forward,” when informed of the findings by The Times.

“It represents a confirmation of the seriousness with which the department is now considering the issue,” he said. “It means we’ve come a very long way.” 

Profiling complaints typically arise from traffic or pedestrian stops, in which the officer is accused of targeting a person solely because of his or her race, ethnicity or other form of outward appearance.


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Photo: Los Angeles Police Department headquarters at 2nd and Spring in downtown Los Angeles. City Hall stands in the background. Credit: Richard Derk