"Crash," the movie vs. race relations, the reality

Larry Elder

3/16/2006 12:05:00 AM - Larry Elder
"Crash," a movie about the allegedly tense "race relations" in Los Angeles, took the Oscar for Best Picture.

Its fans say it reveals how Angelenos walk on racial tightropes, based on fear, stereotypes and distrust. The film unfolds over a 36-hour period, with intersecting characters and a clever script. As a movie, the ensemble cast and plot create a tense, dramatic, interesting film. As a metaphor or statement about race relations in Los Angeles, however, it flunks the smell test.

Actor Matt Dillon plays an immoral cop who pulls over a black couple and proceeds to fondle the wife right in front of the husband. Just before the couple pulled over, they laughed at the idea of getting stopped -- after all, they'd done nothing. But, no, Officer Dillon shatters their naivete, showing why the "black community" refuses to trust the police.

But does this square with reality?

The U.S. Justice Department, in 1998, undertook a nationwide survey. They asked the following question: Are you satisfied with your local police? The results surprised local "civil rights leaders." In Los Angeles, the site of the movie "Crash," 86 percent of all respondents said yes, they were satisfied with the police in their neighborhood. Eighty-nine percent of whites agreed, but what about blacks? Despite the 1992 riots, despite the horrific videotaped beating of Rodney King in 1991, 82 percent of black Angelenos approved of their local police in their own neighborhood.

William Bratton, a white man, runs the Los Angeles Police Department. But Los Angeles' first black police chief, Willie Williams, followed by up-from-the-ranks black chief Bernard Parks, served as Bratton's immediate predecessors. Yes, many blacks complain about race mistreatment and being pulled over for DWB -- Driving While Black -- but take a look at the numbers. The LAPD logs almost 1 million encounters with the public every year, from 9-1-1 responses to warnings for traffic stops. If casual interactions are included -- when the cop on the beat just stops to chat with a civilian, for instance -- LAPD estimates the number of "encounters" would double or triple. In 2004, 4,907 public complaints were filed, of which -- to date -- 4,760 have been closed. Only 164 of the closed complaints were sustained. Even if the 138 complaints with a determination still pending are included with the 164 sustained complaints, that's a small fraction of a percent of all the interactions police have with the public.

Only 42 percent of LAPD's sworn employees are white. Urban blacks know they are twice as likely to be victims of violence as whites. As a result, most blacks support their local police. Indeed, many urge them to become more "proactive."

In Cincinnati, from 1995 to 2001, the police killed 15 black men. Of the shootings, seven of the black men pointed, shot or struggled over a gun with the police, three threatened them with other instruments, one attempted to run down police with a car, and one officer was dragged 800 feet by a car and died. That leaves three police shootings arguably questionable. In all three cases, the officers involved were acquitted or cleared of wrongdoing.

In comes the then-president of the NAACP, Kweisi Mfume, who called Cincinnati "ground zero" for race relations: "Cincinnati's a microcosm, the belly of the whale. It's important for the nation to focus here on ground zero. If we can fix it here, we can fix it elsewhere. But if it doesn't get fixed here, it turns into anarchy and all of us are left wondering, 'Is justice blind?'" As a result, the Cincinnati cops simply pulled back, became less proactive, more passive. This, after all, reduces the number of encounters with citizens, decreasing the likelihood that a Kweisi Mfume may charge some cop with police brutality. So this troubled area of Cincinnati known as Over-the-Rhine saw, within months, an increase in crime.

But what about the alleged racist criminal justice system? Many studies debunk the idea of institutionalized "bias" against black criminal defendants. The U.S. Justice Department releases surveys tracking prosecution and sentencing by race -- and finds that black defendants are prosecuted, convicted and sentenced at rates slightly less than, or the same as, similarly charged white defendants.

Recall Montgomery County Chief Charles Moose? He received fame for his work in helping to capture the D.C. snipers. ABC News did a Person of the Week profile on him. It turns out that Moose intended to become a criminal defense attorney, but chose to become a cop first so that he could learn from the inside how cops plant evidence to falsely convict innocent defendants. "Because, as an African-American male in America in 1975," said Moose, "I really didn't like the police. I was pretty sure the police made up the things that they did so that they could be mean and -- to African-Americans in particular." He decided to remain in law enforcement, however, when he discovered that cops rarely engaged in such illegal conduct.

But, then, maybe he didn't see "Crash."