I have a love-hate relationship with the Los Angeles Times. One of the recurring themes in my articles here on NRO has been my disappointment in the paper’s news reporting and editorials concerning the Los Angeles Police Department. I’ve often found the news stories misleading or incomplete, and I’ve found some of the editorials to be based on false assumptions, as, for instance, when last year they decried a “lingering shoot-first culture” in the LAPD. On the other hand, it was my criticism of this very coverage that prompted an open-minded editor at the Times to invite me to contribute to the paper’s opinion pages. I’m proud to have done so on a few occasions over the past year.
But once again it’s time to bite the hand that feeds me, for a story in Tuesday’s Times had me muttering to myself at the breakfast table. The story, by Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy, ran under the headline, “Complaints Up, Discipline Down at LAPD, Study Says.” It begins as follows: “Although complaints against Los Angeles police employees were up last year, 46% fewer officers and civilian staff members were fired or suspended than in 2004, according to a report released by LAPD Chief William J. Bratton.”
The untutored reader is left to suspect that corruption runs rampant within the LAPD when in fact the exact opposite is true. Buried deep in the story is the fact that in only four percent of the complaints made by the public last year were officers found to have acted improperly. By contrast, 75 percent of the complaints generated within the department resulted in discipline, but the great majority of these were for such minor offenses as failing to appear in court and becoming involved in what the LAPD calls a “preventable traffic collision.” Instances of genuine malfeasance are rare in the department: In 2005, 81 officers were fired, resigned or retired under pressure, or were demoted, and an additional 320 officers and civilian employees were punished with suspensions. These are not numbers to be overlooked, but on a department of 9,300 officers and 3,700 civilians they are hardly cause for alarm.
Nevertheless, writer McGreevy sought out one man who is alarmed, albeit one whose livelihood is enhanced by presenting the LAPD in as dark a light as possible. “Complaints have always been an early warning system for more systemic problems,” said Samuel Paz, who is charitably described by the Times as a civil-rights attorney. Paz is one of a growing number of attorneys who make their living by suing the LAPD and other California police departments. If you can plant in the minds of potential jurors the idea that the police department is festering with corruption, so much the better for your bottom line.
The Times seems only too happy to propagate that very myth. Tuesday’s story contains this loaded sentence: “Calls to police union leaders for comment were not returned Monday.” “Aha,” the reader might say, “they’re keeping mum because they’ve got something to hide!” The reader might not stop to consider, nor did the Times disclose, a more innocuous explanation for the union leaders’ silence: their offices were closed on Monday for the Presidents’ Day holiday.
Missing from the Times’s story was any curiosity about the 96 percent of public complaints that investigators were unable to sustain. Many, many of these were transparently groundless from the outset, but department regulations and the federal consent decree under which the LAPD now operates demand that every complaint, no matter how frivolous or obviously baseless, be investigated. Things have improved somewhat since William Bratton’s installation as chief of the LAPD, but the department still wastes countless man-hours investigating even the most minor complaints while thousands of murders and hundreds of thousands of other serious crimes remain unsolved.
Had McGreevy bothered to speak with any police officers who’ve spent even a few months on the streets of Los Angeles, he would have learned that the filing of complaints has become just another tactic for the city’s criminals. If you file enough complaints against that cop who’s always hassling you, you might at least get him transferred or assigned to the desk, and you may even get rich if you can get someone like Samuel Paz to convince a gullible jury that it is the cop who is the menace to society and not you, the local gangster. Making matters worse–who would have thought it?–is the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which last November ruled that making false complaints against police officers is a form of protected speech. These facts are inconvenient to the cops-as-community-oppressors mindset that seems to prevail at the Times.
McGreevy also seemed to buy into the laughable assertion that the LAPD’s internal affairs unit is understaffed. “Department officials note that, because of limited investigative staffing, fewer complaints that might have brought disciplinary action were resolved in 2005 than the year before,” the story says. “Because the department has had trouble meeting its recruitment goals, it has become more difficult to promote experienced officers to these investigative functions.”
This rubbish went unchallenged in the story. Had he bothered to ask, McGreevy would have learned that the LAPD’s Professional Standards Bureau, the official name for internal affairs, has about 260 sworn officers, enough to staff an entire patrol division. And every single one of them enjoys a regular schedule with nights and weekends off. If any of them think they’re overworked they should try going back to the streets for a few days. They’ll be kissing their desks when they get back to the office.
The Times also seemed to overlook a detail that may have clashed with prevailing attitudes in the paper’s newsroom. The story referred vaguely to 12 counts of sexual misconduct sustained against a command-level officer. “[T]he officer or officers involved were not identified in the report,” the story says. Had McGreevy done even a little bit of digging, even into the archives of his own newspaper, he would have learned that these charges involved a former deputy chief who, though once lauded as the city’s highest-ranking gay officer, retired from the department amid charges that he had molested underage police Explorer Scouts in the late 1970s. Criminal charged were filed in 2003 but later dropped when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a California law that allowed for prosecution in cases beyond the normal statute of limitations. Would such details have been omitted if they involved heterosexual conduct?
There is nothing in the Times’s story that is false or blatantly biased, but conclusions can be drawn as much by what the paper chose to leave out of the story as by what it put in. Don’t the paper’s readers–and the city’s cops–deserve better?
–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.