The report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights of the 1996 hearing in Los Angeles does not meet the Commission's high standards for factfinding and advising the Congress and the American people on critical civil rights developments in this country.
The purpose of the September 1996 hearing was to focus on police-community relations, updating the findings from an earlier hearing, held in June 1993. (The 1993 hearing dealt with the broader issues of poverty, inequality, and discrimination in addition to those involving police-community relations.) Unfortunately, there is no clear "update" that emerges from the present report. Densely written and chronologically confusing, the report tends to bury the results of both the 1996 and 1993 hearings in a series of lengthy analyses of "other developments" which, in turn, are relayed primarily through secondary, media sources. In fact, for those of us who were present during the Commission's hearings in Los Angeles, it is difficult even to recognize the report as a product of those hearings.
In addition to its confusing presentation of both the progress and problems within the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, the report raises several concerns with respect to its findings and recommendations. Particularly troubling are the recommendations in chapter 2 for removing certain procedural protections for police officers whose record contains "unfounded" and "exonerated" complaints and, also, for decriminalizing the filing of false complaints against police officers (through the repeal of California Penal Code section 148.6). These recommendations as well as those calling for a civilian review board and an independent prosecutor are an overreaction which, in the long run, would actually thwart the kinds of results the Commission wants to see. They would create an increasingly bureaucratized and adversarial climate in which police are automatically viewed as suspects.
We should not lose sight of the fact that freedom from crime is one of the most fundamental civil rights. The right to live safely and peaceably, the right to own and operate a business, the right to allow a child to walk to school or play in a public park-these are all civil rights. And the individuals in law enforcement who are charged with protecting people and their property are an essential part of our civil rights system. They are the ones who help to make possible the enjoyment of our rights, and they must always be held accountable in that regard. Police misconduct must never be tolerated. Some of the recommendations in the report could make a positive contribution to improving the relationship between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve. These include certain measures pertaining to community policing, education and training, and the recruitment and retention of law enforcement officers who reflect the diversity of the population.
In the aftermath of the Watts riots of 1965, the Kerner Commission reported that the country was becoming "two societies, one black and one white-separate and unequal." That fault line continues to run through South-Central Los Angeles. It is now more complicated by the immigration of additional racial and ethnic groups and the formation of new communities within the area. The new demographics have created a different set of ethnic and racial tensions. What is apparent in the 30-year history since the issuance of the Kerner report in 1968 is that economic and social progress cannot adequately be achieved in a social context in which high crime rates coexist with high levels of police-community tension. Police officers must be held to the highest standards in respecting the civil rights of all citizens. At the same time, businesses and local communities cannot develop and flourish without serious efforts to reduce crime and ensure the protection of both person and property. An attack upon our person or property is an attack upon our civil rights. The more we are able to encourage police officers to see themselves as the Nation's chief civil rights officers, the more we can move away from a culture of suspicion and prosecution toward a culture of progress and reform.