Is there no one in Los Angeles politics who can tell the truth? Not when it comes to crime, apparently, as has been vividly demonstrated this week in the aftermath of a police shooting that claimed the life of a 13-year-old auto-theft suspect.
This is what we know: Just before 4 A.M. Sunday morning, LAPD Officers Dana Grant and Steve Garcia were on patrol in South-Central Los Angeles. They saw a maroon Toyota Camry run a red light, and when they attempted to pull the car over the driver led them on a brief, high-speed pursuit on the Harbor Freeway and on surface streets. The Camry’s driver lost control of the car while attempting to make a turn, and when the car came to a stop on the sidewalk a male passenger jumped out and fled on foot (he was later arrested). The officers’ car came to a stop just behind the Camry, which now contained only the driver. Officer Garcia was the passenger in the police car, and as he stepped from the car the Camry began backing toward him. Believing that the Camry’s driver was attempting to run him down, Garcia opened fire, firing ten rounds. The Camry struck the police car, causing damage to much of its right side, including the passenger door where Garcia had been standing. The Camry continued backing up, then lurched forward and came to a stop next to the police car. The driver had been struck by Garcia’s gunfire and was killed. Investigators learned the car had been stolen a few hours earlier.
A tragedy, to be sure, but one made all the more sickening by the shameless political sideshow that soon followed. The dead driver was Devin Brown, a 13-year-old black boy. I mention his ethnicity here only because of its relevance to the carnival of racial pandering that’s been escalating all week, with politicians falling over themselves to denounce the shooting, and the always reliable chorus of “community activists” calling for the officers to be brought up on murder charges. Perhaps the most craven of all was Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn, who called for swift changes to LAPD policy. He addressed reporters and protesters at a news conference staged in front of a South L.A. police station on Tuesday. “I am joining in the anger and the frustration,” Hahn said, “and I stand here with great concern over this latest use of force.” One wonders if the mayor joined in the anger and frustration expressed by those protesters who carried signs reading “Death to the pigs.” Addressing the LAPD policy on shooting at moving cars, Hahn said, “We need to make sure this doesn’t happen again.” As to how to prevent 13-year-old boys from using stolen cars to run over police officers, the mayor had no suggestions.
To understand the mayor’s brazenness one must consider the political backdrop against which this shooting occurred. The mayoral primary in Los Angeles is next month. Hahn, once considered a shoo-in for reelection, now sees his hopes fading in hail of corruption charges and campaign chaos. In his first campaign for mayor four years ago, Hahn enjoyed the support of much of South L.A.’s black community, and it might be said that black voters gave him his margin of victory over challenger Antonio Villaraigosa (who again is among the challengers). But Hahn surrendered that support in 2002 when he made the politically courageous decision to suggest that Bernard Parks be replaced as chief of the LAPD. The police commission (the members of which are appointed by the mayor) did vote to oust Parks, a move that was quickly ratified by the city council.
Given the state of the LAPD under Parks’s stewardship, sacking him clearly served the interests of the city, and Hahn no doubt figured he would have sufficient time after doing so to mend fences with his once loyal constituency before the 2005 election. But if Hahn was hoping that Parks would simply fade into a retirement of white shoes and lawn bowling he was very badly mistaken. Parks won an open seat on the city council, walking away with nearly 80 percent of the vote in his South L.A. district, and since taking office he has used his seat as a platform to exact revenge on both Hahn and William Bratton, the man who succeeded him as chief. And now Parks is one of the challengers hoping to unseat Hahn in next month’s primary. In short, Hahn is desperate, and there is almost no stunt so cowardly that a man who sees his political future slipping away won’t at least give it some consideration.
More puzzling have been some comments from police commissioner Rick Caruso. Ordinarily a rational man (recall his reported 2002 characterization of Rep. Maxine Waters), Caruso came a bit unhinged at a commission meeting. “It’s almost inconceivable to lose a child under these circumstances,” said Caruso. “So, to the African-American community and to all of Los Angeles, I apologize, and we need to do the right thing.”
It’s inconceivable to Caruso, certainly. He lives in a gated Brentwood mansion, with 24-hour police protection, so the grim realities of life in South-Central L.A. are probably little more than abstractions to him. But cops on the street are asking, Apologize for what, exactly? A 13-year-old behind the wheel of a car is just as dangerous as a 30-year-old, probably more so. And neither Caruso nor anyone else has proposed a method by which officers might determine the age of a driver during a high-speed pursuit through the early morning darkness.
Though current LAPD policy discourages officers from shooting at moving cars, there are deliberate ambiguities for those situations in which an officer has no other choice but to fire in order to save his own life or someone else’s. Press descriptions of Brown as being “unarmed” overlook the fact that he was aiming a 2,000-pound car at a cop. California law explicitly states that a police officer may use deadly force to confront an assault likely to inflict serious bodily injury. The damage to Garcia’s police car leaves no doubt that he would have been seriously injured or killed had he not taken action. Whether it may have been wiser for him to hold his fire and run out of the way of the car is debatable, but he was not obligated to do so under current law.
Making matters worse are my old friends at the Los Angeles Times, who nearly every week provide me with validation for having canceled the subscription I held for nearly 30 years. In a Thursday editorial, the Times decried what it described as a “lingering shoot-first culture” in the LAPD. The editorial quoted a speaker at a city-council meeting who described the fear of the police felt by South Los Angeles residents. “Black people fear the police as much as they fear the gangs,” the speaker told the council. “In fact, the LAPD is considered the biggest gang in the city.”
It is a tired, old trick to use an inflammatory quote to illustrate a dubious point. This is a foolish statement on its face, as the statistics clearly prove. South- and South-Central Los Angeles are patrolled by five of the LAPD’s 18 area stations. These five stations accounted for slightly more than half of the city’s 515 homicides that occurred in 2004, and an equally high proportion of the assaults against police officers. What is remarkable is not how often officers fire their weapons but rather how often they don’t. Every cop on the streets of L.A. can recall incidents in which he would have been justified in shooting someone but didn’t. These cases seldom if ever draw the attention of our sophisticated betters at the Los Angeles Times.
As for Devin Brown, yes, his death is a tragedy, but police critics have gone to ludicrous extremes in placing him on a martyr’s pedestal. As though borrowing from Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, some press reports have described Brown as an “honor student.” We are left to ponder the sort of academic enterprise he was engaged in while speeding in a stolen car at four in the morning. Wednesday’s Los Angeles Times described a protest meeting at a South L.A. church, where “about 200 people stood, shouted and applauded as speakers said the LAPD viewed blacks differently from others.” “Children tend to be mischievous,” said a woman in the audience, “but they shouldn’t have to die. . . Children do stuff like that all the time.”
Children? Mischievous? Devin Brown, God rest his soul, was not out toilet-papering the gym teacher’s house. He committed at least three felonies, crimes which might have resulted in the death of a police officer, his own passenger, or some innocent bystander, yet you’ll scarcely hear a word in the press calling his precipitous actions into question. Mischievous, indeed.
This will be a long, sorry spectacle. But one sure result will be that the LAPD, which only now is starting to make inroads into the violent-crime problem in South-Central L.A., will be less proactive and less effective. The sentiment among many cops is this: If I chase him I might catch him, and if I catch him I might have to hit him or shoot him. And who needs that?
–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.