Having now recovered from the rigors of his abortive presidential campaign, Al Sharpton arrived in Los Angeles on Monday in search of the fawning media attention he has surely missed these last few months. The occasion was a sit-down with LAPD Chief William Bratton, with whom he discussed the issues surrounding last week’s televised arrest of auto-theft suspect Stanley Miller. By now most anyone with a television set has seen the footage of Miller being kicked and struck with a flashlight by one of the several officers who caught up with him after a 28-minute car chase and brief foot pursuit. A total of eight officers have been removed from field duty as the various investigations proceed. And, with the arrival of the Reverend, the cast of characters in our little play is now complete. One wonders what took him so long to get here.
”Both of us have unfortunately been in these situations before,” Sharpton told reporters after meeting with Bratton. “We know the difference between drama and results. As experienced people, we can go to the core of the issue and that issue is national. We need to stop running from incident to incident and address the policy.”
I’m not sure what any of that is supposed to mean, exactly, but there you have it. Sharpton was apparently trying to sound the part of the thoughtful statesman, the sage who has come west to calm the troubled waters.
But how troubled are those waters, really? As much as it might disappoint Sharpton and all the others who thrive on conflict, not very. After meeting with Bratton, Sharpton moved on to a South Los Angeles church Monday evening, where citizens were invited to come and vent on the issue of police brutality. Not even the Reverend’s appearance at the top of the bill managed to fill the house. On television there looked to be as many reporters present as there were participants. And a recent protest staged in front of a South Los Angeles police station drew only about 50 people. No, Los Angeles is not on the verge of explosion, and cops on the street, apart from hearing the occasional impertinent remark about flashlights, are finding things very much as they were before last week’s incident. No better, certainly, but not appreciably worse.
But why? Put simply, this is not the same LAPD that so badly handled the Rodney King arrest and its aftermath. Can you imagine Daryl Gates, who headed the LAPD at the time of King’s 1991 arrest and during the riots the following year, sitting down for a polite discussion with the likes of Al Sharpton? Neither can I. I was at the time and remain today a Gates admirer; he was nothing if not steadfast in his beliefs, but there was a heavy price paid for that steadfastness. And would things be different today if Bernard Parks had remained as chief of the LAPD? You bet they would: So demoralized was the department under Parks that, if there were any cops remaining on the job at all, they wouldn’t have bothered chasing Miller in the first place.
By inviting a dialogue with Sharpton and others, Bratton has disarmed the No Justice-No Peace crowd and in effect held them responsible if trouble should erupt. But this, too, comes at a price. It’s more than a little jarring to see the top cop in town sharing a platform with Al Sharpton, he of the Tawana Brawley hoax, Crown Heights riot, and Freddy’s Fashion Mart violence. Can you elevate the status of someone like Sharpton without in some way lowering your own? I know I could never bring myself to do it, but that’s just one of the reasons why I’ll never be chief. And so far, at least, you can’t argue with Bratton’s results.
But, as silky-smooth as Bratton has been, he has also displayed his more familiar crispy side. On Monday, he apologized for having called activist Najee Ali “one of the biggest nitwits in Los Angeles” during a live interview on CNN. Ali, who also attended Monday’s meeting with Bratton and spent the day following Sharpton around like a puppy, accepted Bratton’s apology and promised to help promote peace in the city.
“People have been saying a lot how this is Bratton’s first test,” Ali told reporters. “It’s also the community’s first test. Success means not making this an incident like over a decade ago, when we had some of the worst riots in U.S. history.”
He should know. According to the Christian Science Monitor, Ali, then known as Todd Eskew, was an active, even enthusiastic, participant in those riots. “He can’t recall how many windows he broke,” Daniel B. Wood wrote in the April 2002 Monitor piece, “or how many fires he and his friends started. They’d light anything in a store that would burn and spread flames quickly–and then run.” Eskew/Ali was later sentenced to two years in prison for armed robbery and came to embrace Islam while in custody. People can change, I suppose, but maybe “nitwit” isn’t too far off the mark after all.
Also on Monday, Ali resigned from an ad hoc citizens’ panel appointed by Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn to monitor the investigation into Miller’s arrest. Ali came under criticism from some city officials who noted his pending criminal case–he faces trial for felony hit-and-run.
“I’m not going to be used as a pawn to hurt someone else politically,” Ali said of his resignation. “I insist I am completely innocent.”
Of course he is.
Unfortunately, Ali was not the only criminal on the panel, and may not have had the longest rap sheet. Ronald Antwine, said to be a founding member of the Bounty Hunters street gang, was also found worthy of membership. Granted, he no doubt has a fair amount of expertise in police matters, but what was Hahn thinking?
“We weren’t putting together a blue ribbon commission here.” Hahn explained to reporters. “We were putting together a commission of people who represented all aspects of life in the community.”
Bratton has promised the internal-affairs investigation into Miller’s arrest would be complete within two months, but already sources within the LAPD are leaking details to the Los Angeles Times. The Times reported on Saturday that Officer John Hatfield, the officer seen getting busy with the flashlight, believed Miller was trying to pull a gun from his pocket. If this is true–and found to be objectively reasonable–it would justify Hatfield’s actions under both LAPD policy and California law, both of which give officers wide latitude when faced with a deadly threat. Granted, today we know there was no such threat (the object in Miller’s pocket turned out to be wire cutters), but this could not have been so apparent to the officers at the time. They had just been on a long car chase through an area where cops are shot at with alarming regularity. There was also the din of the police and news helicopters overhead, and all of these factors combined to form a scenario that surely was more complicated than it now appears in hindsight.
Miller has of course retained civil attorneys in the transparent hope of turning this latest chapter in his misspent life into a pot of gold. He was reportedly not seriously injured in the arrest, but when his lawyers send him to whichever doctor is in their employ he will no doubt exhibit symptoms of everything from post-traumatic stress disorder to toenail fungus, all of which will be attributed to his rough treatment at the hands of the evil, racist cops. I fully expect to hear the claim that Miller quite innocently found the stolen car with the keys in it and was on his way to return it to its owner when he was set upon by, yes, those evil, racist cops.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that in that heated moment Officer Hatfield was every bit as malevolent as his harshest critics claim. He has spent the last seven years of his life in a job that is heavy with risk and grudging with rewards. Stanley Miller, meanwhile, has been a criminal all his life. Not the worst of criminals, perhaps, but a criminal nonetheless. When all is said and done, which of them would you have for your neighbor?
–Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.