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U.S. Probes Claims of Racist Police Stops
Torrance: Suits filed by black and Latino motorists help prompt the inquiry. The chief denies that drivers are pulled over because of their skin color.

Attorney Howard R. Price, left, is representing Jose Esparza, 19 and Louie Ortiz, 20, who have filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Torrance Police department.

By Eric Slater
Times Staff Writer

The invisible line arcs southeast across the top of Torrance, a theoretical border separating the crime addled heart of Los Angeles County from the relative peace of its coastal suburbs.

Torrance Police Chief, Joe De Ladurantey calls the boundary a geographic "crust" and freely acknowledges that his 249 officers patrol it "aggressively."

Critics of the department have a different term for the line of demarcation: the "Great White Wall," they call it, a racial boundary that they believe is patrolled with apartheid vengeance by the overwhelmingly white Torrance Police Department.

After years of such complaints, the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating accusations of racist policing by Torrance, the county's third-largest police department. The inquiry is an expansion of a probe that began in 1993, when the government sued Torrance to stop what it described racially biased hiring practices in the city's police and fire departments.

A Justice Department official said the agency broadened it's inquiry because of complains such as those in a federal civil rights lawsuit filed in September by three teenagers with no criminal records who are now students at prestigious East Coast universities.

According to their lawsuit, the students were driving through Torrance in a 1979 Chevrolet strewn with history and calculus texts.

Dan Mason, Lohren Price and Nicholas Cramer had just celebrated their graduation from a pricey Studio City prep school by taking in a screening of "Beverly Hills Cop III." On their way back to Inglewood, where two of the youths lived, they were stopped, ordered from the car at gun point, patted down and made to sit cross-legged on the sidewalk while two Torrance police officers searched the car for nearly an hour. The result: a citation for a defective turn signal and a passenger not wearing a seat belt, both of which were later dismissed the suit said.

What got them pulled over, the three allege in their suit, was not erratic driving or outstanding warrants. They were stopped, they say, because two of them are black. It is not unusual for minorities to complain that police harass them with pointless stops in an attempt to discourage them from driving through certain white neighborhoods. Such claims represent one of the most sensitive areas of police-citizen relations and were cited as a fundamental cause of both the 1965 Watts riots and the broader 1992 Los Angeles riots. The complaints against Torrance allege a more intense racism. Civil rights activists and police watch dog groups claim that the department is among the most racially biased and militaristic in Southern California.

"Every time I turn around somebody has a complaint against them," said Royce Esters, president of the Compton National Assn. for the advancement of ....


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