Politics & Policy

Who’s The Bad Guy?

A cop may lose his job, a criminal may get rich.

Last Friday, a three-member disciplinary panel recommended that Officer John Hatfield be fired from the Los Angeles Police Department. Hatfield, 36, was charged with using unnecessary force during the televised June 2004 arrest of Stanley Miller, who led officers on an early morning, high-speed chase through the streets of South Central Los Angeles and Compton before abandoning the stolen car he was driving and attempting to flee on foot. Hatfield was one of several officers who caught up with him after a short foot chase.

In video footage shot from two news helicopters, Hatfield was shown kicking Miller once, hitting him eleven times with a flashlight, and striking him five times with his knee. The panel, composed of two LAPD captains and a civilian, ruled unanimously that all of these blows were unwarranted and that Hatfield therefore deserves to lose his job. It now falls to LAPD Chief William Bratton either to concur with the panel’s recommendation or impose some lesser penalty, such as a suspension without pay.

Hatfield’s justification for his conduct was that he believed Miller was armed, a belief that, though erroneous, was supported by the testimony of other officers as well as audiotapes of the pursuit. The panel chose to disregard this evidence, saying that such an incident “blackens the eye of all law enforcement.”

This from a captain who, unlike Hatfield, performs his duties from the comfort and safety of a cushy chair in a paneled office, without the discomfiting risk of having his eye blackened for real. This is what police officers who work the streets find most dispiriting. The decisions they make in the blink of an eye, decisions on which their very lives depend, are endlessly second-guessed and ultimately judged by those for whom car chases and brawls in the dirt and all the other unpleasant realities of police work are but distant memories, if that. There are two basic types of cops in the LAPD: Those Who Put Bad Guys in Jail, and Everybody Else. The ones who make captain and sit in judgment of the former almost always come from the latter.

Whatever mistakes Hatfield made that morning, and he acknowledges he made some, were made in the confusion of a dangerous and rapidly changing scenario, one scarcely imaginable to anyone outside law enforcement. After spotting the stolen car that morning, he might easily have ignored it and gone home to bed when his shift was scheduled to end an hour or so later. Instead he gave chase, risking his own life only to see himself vilified and Stanley Miller, like Rodney King before him, exalted as a civil rights martyr. (Said exaltation is on hold for now due to the inconvenient fact that Miller is in prison. He has filed a $25-million lawsuit against the city.) And regardless of how ugly the incident looks on tape, it should be remembered that Miller suffered only the slightest of injuries when he was arrested. An officer being fired under such circmustances is all but unheard of.

In an NRO piece I wrote about the incident last June I said the following:

Chief Bratton must walk a fine line. He is the public face of the Los Angeles Police Department, and this incident threatens to overshadow the improvements in community relations and crime reduction he has made thus far in his term as chief. But he is also the leader of a 9,000-officer force, and he has a duty to keep his people motivated. If his officers perceive that he is sacrificing one or a handful of their own for the sake of political expediency, they will no longer be eager go out on the streets and perform as he would wish. The only ones who profit from a demoralized police force are criminals, and I’m guessing that even now the predators of Los Angeles are looking to test what they may believe are new rules of engagement.

There have been some 300 murders committed this year in Los Angeles, about half of them in the four patrol divisions that cover South and South Central L.A. The only reason this number isn’t two, three, or ten times as high is that people like John Hatfield are willing to go out in the dead of night and put themselves between the predators and the prey. If he loses his job, a very loud message will be heard by those he leaves behind: The pay is the same whether I arrest anyone or not. Why take any chances?

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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