Politics & Policy

Why Bother?

The LAPD is back in the spotlight.

Sometimes a cop can only shake his head in wonder at the silliness of it all. For reasons that escape me, a videotaped arrest that occurred three months ago in Hollywood has stirred national and even international attention, once again putting the Los Angeles Police Department in a familiar yet uncomfortable position. By now you must surely have seen the video, available on YouTube and elsewhere, in which two LAPD officers are shown subduing a man who allegedly ran from them when they tried to arrest him for an outstanding felony warrant.

The video has been examined and commented on down to its smallest details elsewhere, and I needn’t discuss what has already been analyzed, ad nauseam, on countless other websites and blogs. But for those seeking immersion into the minutiae of the tape and the resulting uproar, I recommend L.A. blogger Patterico’s commentary on the arrest and the subsequent coverage it received in the Los Angeles Times. The many comments posted in reaction to Patterico’s blog entry represent the range of arguments both for and against the officers, but they can be distilled into two camps: The cops were out of control when they gave an unjustified bruising to a harmless, helpless man, or the guy got what he deserved and so what if he and his criminal-coddling apologists don’t like it. The reader can well imagine which of these positions I find more persuasive.

Had video cameras been as ubiquitous years ago as they are now I might have found myself in a situation similar to the one faced by those two officers today. My partner and I were patrolling a neighborhood well known for the availability of various street drugs, and we spotted a driver we suspected of having bought some. When we pulled him over we expected a routine encounter and a routine arrest. I asked the man to step out of his car, but when he did so he kept one hand behind his back. So obvious was his attempt to hide something that I grabbed his arm and asked him what he had. What fell to the ground at his feet was not the bindle of drugs I expected but a semi-automatic pistol. As you might have guessed, the mood of our encounter took a different tack.

The fight was on. The man immediately dove to the ground and tried to retrieve the gun, and my partner and I dove on top of him to keep him from doing so. The man was on his hands and knees, with one hand only inches from the gun. We would have had every justification in shooting him, but that would have required us to release our grip on him, perhaps allowing him to grab his gun before we could unholster our own. We were at last able to put just a bit more distance between him and his gun, giving me the split second I needed to pull my sap from my back pocket and hit him in the head with it.

It was effective. The guy collapsed in a heap, blood trickling from the wound I had opened on his scalp. For a moment I thought I had killed him, and for more than a moment I wished I had. He had made his decision that he would shoot me and my partner, and if we had not acted decisively and, yes, violently, he most surely would have. Recalling the incident to record it here is indeed chilling.

There was a single witness to the incident, a woman sitting on her porch across the street. She had seen everything, she told our sergeant, and she said we had beaten the man “for no reason at all.” The sergeant asked her if she had seen the gun the man had dropped. She had not, and she agreed that this added information changed her interpretation of what she had witnessed.

Just as the woman failed to see the gun from across the street, if she had recorded the incident with a video camera the gun probably wouldn’t have been visible on the tape, either. I can envision such a tape being played, over and over and over, on the news and on the Internet, and I can imagine being pilloried in the media just as the two Hollywood officers in the current tape are being pilloried today. And I can imagine myself saying, just as the two Hollywood cops must be saying, just as cops all over the LAPD are saying, Why bother?

LAPD Chief William Bratton is rightly proud of the dramatic drop in crime seen in Los Angeles since his arrival in 2002, a drop that would have been unthinkable had his predecessor, Bernard Parks, been retained. But today, despite his measured words in support for these two officers, Bratton is regarded as little more than another player in a municipal political apparatus that is at best indifferent and at worst hostile to the cops who risk their lives on the streets of the city every day. Though crime continues to decline in Los Angeles as a whole, violent crime has increased, year to year, in eight of the city’s 19 patrol divisions, and arrests have declined in ten divisions, a glaring sign of a police department that is losing its motivation.

Cops everywhere can imagine themselves in the position of those two in Hollywood, and cops in L.A. are saying, more and more every day, Why bother?

 – 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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