There is an old saying in the Los Angeles Police Department, one handed down to each succeeding generation of rookie cops: The LAPD badge is oval rather than star-shaped so it won’t hurt as much when somebody shoves it…well, you know the rest. Among my duties over the course of my career has been the training of young police officers freshly graduated from the police academy. One thing I have always taught the trainees placed in my care is that we should treat everyone with that level of respect they prove themselves deserving, and that if we have a legal reason for wanting someone to behave in a certain fashion we first ask him, then we tell him, then we make him, through the judicious application of violence if necessary. A cop might handle a thousand radio calls and make a hundred arrests without having to raise even his voice, much less his baton or his gun, but then there comes that one guy in a hundred who, perhaps after ingesting some mind-altering substance or another, simply refuses to go along with the program.
Such is the case in Cincinnati, where the dark clouds of controversy are once again swirling around the police department. Here is what we know: Just before six A.M. on Sunday, an employee at a White Castle restaurant in the city’s Avondale neighborhood called 9-1-1 to report a man acting strangely out in front. The man, identified later as Nathaniel Jones, 41, appeared to be passed out on the lawn, the caller said, but he was repeatedly and inexplicably shouting the word “nineteen.” A fire engine was dispatched, and shortly after arriving the firefighters requested police to respond. Two officers were dispatched for a “disorderly subject,” and soon after arriving the officers were involved in a violent struggle with Jones, much of which was captured on a police car’s video camera. On the tape the disparity in size between Jones and the officers is readily apparent: at 350 lbs., Jones appeared to outweigh both officers together. As the tape rolls, an officer can be heard telling Jones to stay back, after which Jones lunges and hits an officer in the head with his right arm. The second officer moves in, and soon all three are on the ground in front of the police car. Jones remains below the camera’s view for much of the incident, but at one point his hand is visible on one officer’s neck. Later, Jones rises to his knees to face the camera, and he appears to make a grab for one officer’s holstered pistol. At another point in the tape Jones has a grasp of an officer’s baton. More officers eventually arrive and subdue Jones, both with their bodyweight and at least one officer’s pepper spray.
Moments later the officers found Jones to be in some kind of medical distress. The firefighters, who had left when the police officers arrived, returned to the scene and began attending to him. An ambulance was summoned, but Jones was pronounced dead after being taken to a local hospital. According to the coroner, Jones suffered bruises from the baton blows, but none of them was thought to be fatal or even incapacitating. Jones was found to have an enlarged heart, and traces of both cocaine and PCP were found in his blood, perhaps explaining his bizarre and violent behavior. PCP was all the rage in South Central Los Angeles when I worked there in the early 80s, and seldom did a week go by without officers on my watch becoming involved in a donnybrook very similar to the one shown on the tape.
Whatever choices Jones may have made that contributed to his demise will matter little, of course, to the legions of the professionally and perennially aggrieved who must surely be descending on Cincinnati at this very moment. Jones was black, and five of the six officers who subdued him are white (the sixth is black), and these days that’s just about all it takes to raise the hackles of the racial-grievance industry. Jesse Jackson has quite predictably called for state and federal investigations into Jones’s death, and the sweet smell of racially charged controversy will no doubt be too alluring for him to stay away. And is there even the slightest chance that Al Sharpton won’t use the incident to garner attention to his ever-more-farcical presidential campaign? Cincinnati’s own local grievance gurus are already in high voice. Calvert Smith, president of the Cincinnati chapter of the NAACP, called Jones’s death “the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.” Smith said the NAACP will conduct its own investigation into the matter, and will “take whatever measures are necessary to ensure justice.”
Whatever the eventual outcome of the various investigations, the immediate effect will be similar to that which followed the death of Timothy Thomas, the unarmed black man fatally shot by a Cincinnati police officer during a foot pursuit in April 2001. (The police officer, Stephen Roach, was tried and acquitted on misdemeanor charges stemming from the shooting.) Thomas’s death sparked days of rioting and months of protests, but a more pernicious effect was a police force enfeebled by the controversy. Violent crime skyrocketed as arrests plummeted, and the great majority of the victims were of course the very blacks whom the protesters purported to defend.
Mr. Jones’s death is indeed unfortunate; even a criminal leaves behind family and friends who mourn his passing. But it seems likely that at age 41 he at last reaped the harvest of a lifetime of his own unwise choices, namely the ingestion of drugs and what we might assume from his physique to be prodigious quantities of White Castle hamburgers. The outcome might well have been different had Jones succeeded in gaining control of one of the officers’ weapons as the tape suggests was his intent, but the voices now bellowing from rooftops would be silent as a stone if a police officer had instead been the one to die that morning.
–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.