I love fire fighters. Who doesn’t? They risk their lives to save our homes and cities and wildlife areas from terrible fires. They show up when you have a heart attack or your baby stops breathing and save a life, if at all possible. Do they still get cats out of trees? Not sure about that, but that’s the image we have; always helping, in small and very important ways, never hurting.
Tough job. An even tougher job — police officer. Where would we be without the police, who literally risk their lives every single day? We’d be at the mercy of armed-to-the-teeth, frightened, paranoid vigilantes, armed (but probably not trained) guards at every business and public facility and on every street corner. Total anarchy would quickly descend. We need the thin blue line.
But are police officers as universally beloved as firemen? No. Why?
I think it’s because of the rotten few — and sometimes the rotten many. It’s also because of bad policies and procedures, and protection of their own no matter what, enforced from the top down. A recent investigative report on the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department by the L.A. Times offers startling insight.
Just a few days ago a prominent judge was put in handcuffs and arrested at UCLA over not having fastened his seat belt. He says he was thrown in the back of the car with such force that his feet flew up, and then he was accused of kicking an officer and resisting arrest. But he couldn’t have been too much a violent threat because when a police sergeant arrived 10 minutes later, he released him.
The endless flow of news reports about police brutality weigh heavily on me. They come from all over the U.S. Texas has made the news the past year for three separate incidents where females were body-cavity searched, without changing gloves, by the side of the road after a routine stop. The details meet the legal description of rape in Texas, and yet each department defended the procedures. I recall something similar coming out of North Carolina, and Florida, and even my own New Mexico.
The story that really broke my heart came last May, where a father of four young children, reported as being intoxicated and lying on the sidewalk just across from the Kern Medical Center, was set upon by seven Kern County Sheriff’s deputies, and a police dog, later joined by two more CHP officers. Those policemen beat him there on the sidewalk (they said he was resisting arrest) while he begged for his life. He died. The department has taken no disciplinary action against any of the officers, nor has the CHP. They say they are investigating, and that it will take a long time — “years.”
Two aspects of this senseless, completely unjustified murder further unnerve me: that the department is defending the action and stonewalling any investigation (but that has become a pattern almost everywhere), and like Gestapo the police that night ran up to neighbors who videotaped the incident and demanded their cell phones and cameras. Those who retreated into their homes had the cops barge in and surround them, for hours, until they got those damning videos.
Two L.A. Times reporters, Ben Poston and Robert Faturechi, got hold of the internal hiring files for Lee Baca’s Sheriff’s Department, the nation’s largest. The deputies’ union tried unsuccessfully to block publication of information from those files, and Baca’s response was to launch a criminal investigation — into who leaked the files. He had recently made an unequivocal statement about who is fit to be a deputy (“no second chances”), but when confronted with these findings declined comment. His spokesman later stated Baca was “not aware people with such backgrounds were hired.” Right.
What kind of backgrounds? You’ll have to read the story. A man who shot his service revolver, several shots, at a retreating car over an argument in a McDonald’s parking lot. Then lied that he had been dragged 15 feet by the car and was only defending himself. A man who had been fired for mistreating prisoners was nonetheless hired and assigned, you guessed it, to a jail, guarding prisoners. He had also volunteered the information that he was sexually involved with a 14-year-old girl. (“I was in love,” he explained.) No problem, apparently. A woman who had a fight with her husband shot to kill as he ran away, but missed, saying if he hadn’t zigged and zagged, “the end result would have been a whole lot different.” Another man with a history (10 accusations, three proven) of mistreating prisoners was also assigned to guard them; after more violations they assigned him to the time card office, where he is now accused of stealing thousands in overtime pay from his fellow officers.
There’s more, much, much more.
I don’t think there’s anything like that going on in Santa Monica, but I would like to see the hiring records, and have requested that.
I think it’s a national culture of inappropriate police power, of departments who have a badly skewed notion of what their responsibilities are, that leaves the vast majority of great cops scarred by the few, and the people living in fear of those hired to protect and serve them.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Certainly we don’t have the worst cops in the world, by far, but I’ve traveled all over Europe and Japan and have seen a far different culture that works. Citizens and police get along famously, and their crime rates are lower than ours. There’s something off here and I pray it can be changed, but it won’t be easy.
Charles Andrews has lived in Santa Monica for 27 years and wouldn’t live anywhere else in the world. Really. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org