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How racist remarks cost L.A. cops trust

By Mark O'Mara
May 9, 2014 -- Updated 2257 GMT (0657 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says by not firing a cop who allegedly made racial slurs LAPD Chief Beck has sent a message to all young black men in Los Angeles this his officers are not to be trusted
Mark O'Mara says by not firing a cop who allegedly made racial slurs LAPD Chief Beck has sent a message to all young black men in Los Angeles this his officers are not to be trusted
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mark O'Mara: LAPD cop caught on audio recording allegedly making racial slurs outside bar
  • He says disciplinary hearing recommended he be fired; chief suspended him instead
  • Black men overrepresented in criminal justice system. Racism from cops hurts trust, he says
  • O'Mara: Allowing racist officers to remain institutionalizes racism and endangers good cops

Editor's note: Mark O'Mara is a CNN legal analyst. He is a criminal defense attorney who frequently writes and speaks about issues related to race, guns and self-defense in the context of the American criminal justice system. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- A Los Angeles Police officer was caught on an audio recording allegedly making racial slurs during an encounter with some young black men outside a bar in Norco, California.

The incident took place in 2012, according to a report this week by CBS-LA reporter David Goldstein, which included audio of the the officer's remarks. And a panel assembled to conduct a formal disciplinary hearing subsequently recommended that the cop, Shaun Hillmann, be fired. But LAPD Chief Charlie Beck overruled the decision, issuing a 65-day suspension instead.

Mark O\'Mara
Mark O'Mara

Apparently, Chief Charlie Beck thinks it is tolerable to have officers on the beat who use the N-word -- as a bar security guard alleged Hillman did -- and refer to young black men as "monkeys," as Hillman can be heard doing on the audio recording.

Now, I acknowledge Hillman was off duty. But a law enforcement officer is sworn to uphold and enforce our laws equally among our citizens without regard to skin color, and has no right to bigotry even while off duty, even while upset or even while impaired.

When I think about officer Hillman's alleged encounter, I am reminded again of the troubling overrepresentation of black men in the criminal justice system. Nearly 1 of every 100 Americans serves jail time, and there are nearly six times as many black inmates as there are whites.

Is that because some cops think the use of the N-word is acceptable or think of young black men as "monkeys?"

Or perhaps it has something to do with what President Barack Obama addressed when he remarked that "African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system, that they are disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence."

Or, more likely, it's a self-reciprocating reaction to both. If some cops exhibit racism, are black men justified in being distrustful of cops? If black men are more likely to be seen as perpetrators of violence, are cops justified in being more wary of black men?

Should you be tempted to ask yourself "which came first?" -- that will take you back to a time when virtually all black men in America were in shackles, and that line of thinking isn't productive. A better question to ask is "Who is in the best position to break the cycle?" The answer is this: The person in authority.

In our communities, police officers are the face of authority. They are the first responders to calls for justice or help. When they respond to a call, they decide how to treat the parties involved. They decide whether or not to make an arrest. As a society that struggles with a deep race problem, we have to trust that our police officers are not racists.

When we encounter a cop who displays blatant bigotry -- even when he is off duty -- we cannot tolerate it. By allowing the officer who allegedly made these racial slurs to remain on the force -- even after a disciplinary board rules that he should be fired -- LAPD Chief Beck has sent a message to all young black men in Los Angeles that his officers are not to be trusted.

This could have disastrous consequences for all the LAPD officers who are honorable and serve their community with integrity and who treat citizens with respect.

Allowing racist officers to remain on the beat institutionalizes racism and it endangers good cops.

In the face of this, here are some things to remember if you're a young black man, and you encounter a racist cop: Be better than the cop. If you allow an officer to provoke you, you're much more likely to be arrested. Whatever you say will be put in the police report, and it will be used against you by the prosecutor.

If you run, or resist, or fight, it will be used against you. It makes it harder for defense attorneys like me to help, and in the end, one gross injustice can be compounded by another.

But that doesn't mean anyone should stand by and do nothing. More and more police departments record interactions between citizens and police. When there is evidence of racism in these transactions, report it. Report it and demand action. We can start with demanding action from LAPD Chief Charlie Beck.

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