Politics & Policy

More Politics, Less Police Work

Endangering cops to grab a few votes.

When will it stop?

In February, an orgy of racial pandering followed the police shooting of Devin Brown, a black 13-year-old car thief. Brown was shot and killed when he backed his car toward an LAPD officer at the end of an early-morning pursuit in South-Central Los Angeles. Alas, some of the rhetoric that seemed so inflammatory and irresponsible only two months ago appears positively Lincolnian today, which invites conjecture on how much worse things might get between now and the May 17 mayoral runoff.

In a repeat of the 2001 runoff, incumbent James Hahn now faces city councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, and the campaign is unlikely to be remembered for its gentility. Charges of corruption and malfeasance are traded every day, and for now most of the mud seems to be sticking to Hahn. The only good news to come out of the March primary is that Bernard Parks, the unlamented former chief of the LAPD, finished far out of the running and will not be the next mayor of the City of Angels. Beyond that the picture is bleak, especially for L.A.’s cops.

Less than 30 percent of L.A.’s registered voters bothered to show up at the polls for the primary, reflecting the city’s apathy for local politics, or, perhaps, local politicians. Los Angeles is a city of 3 million people spread over 464 square miles, and most of those people wouldn’t recognize James Hahn or Antonio Villaraigosa if they stood up in their soup. The typical Angeleno would rather take a beating than a trip to city hall.

Turnout for the runoff isn’t likely to be much better than it was for the primary, which leaves Hahn and Villaraigosa scrambling to reach those voters most likely to show up on Election Day. Though blacks make up only about 11 percent of the population in Los Angeles, they accounted for 16 percent of the votes cast in the primary. More than half of those votes went to Bernard Parks, which means that a sizable voting bloc is now up for grabs. For those of you fortunate enough to live outside Los Angeles, the resulting carnival of kowtowing to Maxine Waters and other racial-grievance types might make for an amusing spectacle, but those of us watching from inside the city limits can only cringe at the sight of Hahn and Villaraigosa trying to “out-black” each other. Look for one or the other of them to come to the next debate wearing a dashiki.

To no one’s surprise, Bernard Parks has endorsed Villaraigosa, as have Maxine Waters and Magic Johnson, and a Los Angeles Times poll released Wednesday shows the challenger with a comfortable 18-point lead over Hahn among likely voters. Villaraigosa’s strength cuts across all sections of the city and all demographics save one: Republicans, who account for about a quarter of all L.A. voters, and who favor Hahn by a 20-point margin in the Times poll. This leaves Hahn in the unenviable, even comical position of courting conservative and black voters simultaneously. He thus has adopted two personas, one the sober-minded pragmatist who faces the conservative crowds in the San Fernando Valley, the other the fire-breather who exhorts black voters in South-Central L.A. (I use the term “fire-breather” guardedly, for even at his most caffeinated and animated, Hahn is unlikely to rouse a napping cat.)

Facing the possible end of his political career, Hahn has plumbed new depths in his quest for black votes. In a Wednesday editorial, the Los Angeles Times lambasted him for his “desperate and shameful” reaction to the continuing troubles at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, a citadel of South-Central Los Angeles’s otherwise eroding black power structure. Hahn held a press conference in front of the hospital on Monday, vowing to keep it open despite its manifold failures in patient care. Paradoxically, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, the hospital’s last unrepentant supporter on the county board of supervisors, has endorsed Villaraigosa. Last week, in an odd choice of words, Burke announced that the hospital would close “over my dead body,” which, should she through some misfortune find herself a patient there, may indeed be the case. (On Tuesday, the Times reported on a King/Drew patient who died when nurses ignored alarms triggered by his failing vital signs, the sixth such death at the hospital in 21 months. The Times’s reporting on the crisis at King/Drew earned the paper a Pulitzer Prize earlier this month. The entire series is available here.)

But we expect such pandering from politicians, especially those facing the dismaying prospect of having to find honest work. More disappointing has been the performance of LAPD Chief William Bratton, who apparently left his spine in New York when he packed his bags and came west. It was Bratton’s willingness to lock horns with then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani that led to his dismissal as commissioner of the NYPD, but it was this confrontational style that inspired his cops and brought about the unprecedented drop in crime that occurred during his tenure there. It saddens me to say it, as I advocated his hiring and welcomed him as a savior when he arrived, but Bratton has abdicated his role as leader of the LAPD and squandered his once-considerable political capital in the service of a Hahn reelection campaign that is already all but doomed.

As NYPD commissioner, Bratton often took a tough stance in defending his officers involved in controversial incidents. Would that he would do so today. Recall the televised June arrest of Stanley Miller, a car thief who led police on an early morning, high-speed chase through South-Central Los Angeles and Compton. When an officer was shown striking Miller eleven times with a metal flashlight, Bratton’s reaction to the hue and cry that erupted was to move to ban the offending flashlights, this despite the fact that Miller was injured only slightly during the altercation. In this Bratton has transparently placed politics above the welfare of his cops. His stated rationale for moving to smaller, non-metallic flashlights showed a woeful indifference to the dangers officers face on the streets. Assaults on officers are far more common at night, when people are more likely to be drunk or high on drugs. In the time it will take an officer to secure his new, non-offensive, plastic flashlight, and draw his baton to ward off an assault, his attacker will have landed at least five punches, punches that might have been deflected with the flashlights most officers now carry.

In February, the district attorney’s office announced it would not file charges against any of the officers involved in the Miller arrest, yet despite this several of them remain under what amounts to house arrest as they await a decision on what disciplinary action will be taken against them. The facts of the case have been known for months, only the shifting political winds will determine the officers’ fate. Cops have this well in mind every time they confront a potentially hostile situation, and as they become more cautious the city’s criminals will be only too happy to take advantage. Crime has been on the decline in Los Angeles, but, as was shown during Bernard Parks’s tenure as chief, it will go back up if cops on the street are continually demoralized. (The district attorney’s report on the Stanley Miller case, including post-arrest photos of Miller, can be viewed here.)

Bratton’s reaction to the Devin Brown shooting was much the same. Rather than speak up for the involved officer, or even appeal for calm while the investigation was completed, Bratton wrung his hands and kept mum while Mayor Hahn and others made inflammatory, even insulting remarks about his police officers. This was soon followed by a hastily enacted change to the LAPD shooting policy, which now all but forbids officers from shooting at moving cars unless an occupant is firing a gun from it. In Los Angeles today a fleeing driver can ram pursuing police cars or even run down cops and innocent bystanders without being burdened by the fear of being shot. Indeed, only days after the policy was adopted a fleeing robbery suspect told his accomplice he would run down any cop that got in his way. (Unfortunately for him, the new policy hadn’t yet settled in with the troops: He was shot while backing his car toward some officers. He survived.)

In an effort to get officers to adhere to this new policy the department produced a training tape that was shown to officers at roll call every day last week. In the tape, two cops go through a ludicrously choreographed ballet in dodging a car backing toward them. It was openly derided at the roll calls I attended. If I’ve learned anything in more than two decades as a cop it’s that things never go down like they do in the training tapes.

At the conclusion of this tape Bratton makes the following pronouncement: “I would never support the implementation of a policy that endangers you in any way or limits your ability to do your job safely. I fully expect this policy, coupled with the extensive training you will be given, will provide sound direction to keep you safe, even as you go in harm’s way.”

Putting it as politely as I can, that’s what’s left in a cow pasture after the cows have gone. In his response to both the Stanley Miller arrest and the Devin Brown shooting, Bratton has shown a willingness to let petty political considerations dictate officers’ tactics on the street. We expected so much more from him. If Antonio Villaraigosa goes on to defeat James Hahn in May and then forces Bratton out, his departure will be greeted by yawns, if not cheers, from the men and women of the LAPD.

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.


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