February 24, 2005,
Just when I thought things couldn't get any worse...
In a further affront to the men and women they purport to lead, the Los Angeles Police Commission has unanimously voted to further restrict when officers can fire their weapons at moving cars. The new policy, laid out in Special Order No. 1, reads as follows:
Firearms shall not be discharged at a moving vehicle unless a person in the vehicle is immediately threatening the officer or another person with deadly force by means other than the vehicle. For the purposes of this Section, the moving vehicle itself shall not presumptively constitute a threat that justifies an officer's use of deadly force. An officer threatened by an oncoming vehicle shall move out of its path instead of discharging a firearm at it or any of its occupants . . . (Emphasis in original.)
The order continues, offering the supposed justification for this change in policy, which, summed up, is that by shooting at a moving car the officer may make a bad situation even worse. Which may very well be true, but the real reason for this amendment to the LAPD's use-of-force policy is nowhere to be found in Special Order No. 1. The real reason is politics, and a particularly odious brand of politics at that.
As I've previously written, Los Angeles voters will go to the polls in a mayoral primary on March 8. The incumbent, James Hahn, sees his future in politics vanishing with each passing day, and he seems to pin his fading hopes on wooing back some of the black voters he wrote off back in 2002 by dumping Bernard Parks as chief of the LAPD. But Parks is now running against him, and the former chief would seem to have a lock on those black votes Hahn hopes to recapture. Furthermore, Hahn's ham-fisted kowtowing to racial agitators like Maxine Waters in the wake of the much-publicized Devin Brown shooting has very likely alienated many conservative voters (what few there are here in L.A.) who had previously been inclined to vote for him.
It's interesting to note the different spin on this matter taken by two local newspapers. In a Los Angeles Daily News story on the new policy, both Mayor Hahn and LAPD Chief William Bratton were reported to have denied any political motivations behind the commission's vote. But in a Los Angeles Times story the same day, Bratton was said to acknowledge that he was under political pressure from the mayor to change the policy. I'm often critical of the Times, but when they're right, they're right, and it doesn't take much of a nose to smell the politics all over this issue. The five police commissioners, none of whom has even a day's worth of experience as an officer, were appointed by Hahn. And Hahn also picked Bratton to succeed Parks as head of the police department. If Hahn is unseated, the new mayor would most likely seek to name his own police chief, and Bratton would be asked to turn in his hat and books. This is especially true if Bernard Parks somehow were to be elected, for the enmity between Parks and Bratton is palpable. If Parks becomes mayor (and I shudder at the very thought of it), Bratton will be only one of the hundreds of cops queuing up to quit that same day.
The new policy also ignores one reason cops fire at cars: to prevent them from endangering the public. Police officers have a duty to prevent the guilty from harming the innocent, and careening down a residential street at 60 or 70 miles-an-hour is no less dangerous to the public than randomly firing a gun into a crowd; eventually someone is going to get hurt. Chief Bratton has promised to institute new, aggressive measures for bringing pursuits to a stop, but as of today neither I nor anyone I know has been trained in these measures. How many people do I have to see run down and killed before I can shoot the driver responsible for it?
All of this leaves the cop on the street stuck between an indifferent political structure and a violent city. In the 2001 election Mayor Hahn made public safety a pillar of his campaign, promising to hire 1,000 new police officers and make Los Angeles "the safest big city in America." He came nowhere near his goal in hiring new cops, but since giving the gate to Bernard Parks the LAPD has returned to the business of fighting crime. Part I crime is down 23 percent from two years ago, this despite the city's failure to hire more cops, and despite the shameful wasting of thousands upon thousands of police man hours in shuffling paper related to a federal consent decree.
It takes motivated cops to put up such numbers, but it's hard to stay motivated in the midst of a political carnival. We see Steve Garcia, the officer who shot Devin Brown at the end of a high-speed pursuit, as only the latest scapegoat to a city government that seems to value the lives of criminals more highly than those of its police officers. In his position Chief Bratton must wear the hats of both politician and policeman, but these days we'd like to see much less of the former and much more of the latter.
Add to this the news that Johnnie Cochran's law firm has filed a wrongful-death suit against the city of Los Angeles on behalf of Devin Brown's family. Cochran's involvement is not likely to elevate the discussion of Brown's death, nor will it serve to ease tensions should things not go as he, Maxine Waters & co. might wish.
They would all deny it, of course, but James Hahn, the police commissioners, and all the other handwringers must have had the terrible thought by now: Had only Steve Garcia been killed that morning instead of Devin Brown, how much easier their jobs would be.
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.