Mark Twain once said, “If I had more time, I’d have written you a shorter note.”
That pretty much sums up my predicament as I type while under the influence of adrenaline, a looming deadline, and a situation that’s got me really pissed off.
So let me lead off by saying that whatever comes of this week’s use of force by one of his officers, kudos to El Monte, Calif., Police Chief Tom Armstrong.
Only four months into his tenure as chief of this mid-sized Los Angeles-area agency, Armstrong was very much put on the spot Wednesday afternoon while interviewed at the back of a KNBC Channel 4 news van. Reviewing footage of a force incident captured by a news copter monitoring the situation overhead, Armstrong watched as one of his own officers used a boot to kick the head of a 23-year-old suspect named Richard Rodriguez, who was lying face down in the backyard of a residence, his arms extended to his sides. On camera himself, the chief paused for a second and considered his words.
“I don’t have all the facts yet,” Chief Armstrong said. “This is going to be looked into, and it should be. But I‘m not here to make a decision or tell you what that officer did was overtly wrong until I know all the facts.”
The chief’s intelligent and temperate response becomes all the more conspicuous when contrasted with “sell ‘em out” sentiments displayed by other administrators in the aftermath of other controversial incidents elsewhere.
For its part, Channel 4 (KNBC-Los Angeles) is sticking to script—milking the story for all it’s worth, with the top of each newscast repeatedly showing the image of the officer’s kick to the suspect’s head while glossing over the allegations of absurdly dangerous driving by the suspect, including a near head-on collision with another motorist at high speed during the pursuit.
KNBC isn’t alone.
I click on the LA Times Web page.
The first image that pops up?
Boot to the head!
And so on.
When Mark Lindsay sang “Kicks just keep getting harder to find,” he obviously wasn’t checking out the news.
The accompanying headlines allude to damning indictments from various “authorities” and “professionals”: “The ACLU Wants Officer Who Kicked Suspect Suspended.” (Boy, I didn’t see that one coming).
Suffice to say, the situation has gotten me dander up. Oh, I'm not talking about the cop's kick to the reputed gang member head. I'm talking about the f___ing news media that's putting the boot to our collective heads because of it!
The way the local news media have played up one kick to the head, you’d expect to find an abusive cop around every corner, a salivating leer in place and nightstick at the ready. Yet despite the ubiquitous nature of video technology, you don’t.
The sad irony is that’s what makes this incident news! And once in possession of some coveted eye poison, the news media spins it every which way but good, interviewing any subliterate moron they happen upon for some relevant insight (“Dude, what that cop did—that was gangsta!”), interspersing the pertinent quote with the boot shot and looping the shit ad nauseum.
Some part of me wanted to believe that the news media aren’t just trying to embolden the next dirtbag, inhibit the next cop, and enrich the next attorney, so I decided to get someone else’s take on the matter.
Despite being up to his ass in alligators, Lt. Dan Berlingham of the El Monte PD proved generous in sharing with me his take on the matter.
“Money is what motivates everything,” noted Berlingham. “That’s the bottom line. And as outraged as individuals or law enforcement can get about it, there’s not much else that can be done about it. [Regarding the force], it’s sellable to them—and that’s why it’s there. It’s always been that way.”
And with that, the even-tempered and realistic Lt. Berlingham was off to deal with another annoying phone call.
I wondered if Lt. Dan had a leg to stand on (sorry, couldn’t resist). So I tried looking at it from KNBC’s point of view.
Print media is dying. Broadcast news ratings are dropping. We're dumping our overpaid anchors. Let’s just stir the pot over here…
At some mercenary and totally screwed up level, it actually did make sense.
By any estimation, the video in question doesn’t look good: One can only hope that there’s some mitigating justification for the use of force.
Absent any such validation, part of me still understands the desire to pound the living crap out of some deserving SOB. Any cop that’s been in a dangerous vehicle or foot pursuit knows all too well how difficult it is to pull the reins on one’s self, to ALWAYS conduct one’s self in an exemplary and professional manner.
That’s why I smirk when I see professional news anchors and reporters who never lose their cool and never cuss one another out and never flub their lines cry abuse and express shock and dismay at an officer’s split-second action that may or may not have been justified. (And the proof that they never lose control is readily available on the internet. Why look! It’s former KNBC anchor Paul Moyer raving like a lunatic at one of his coworkers.)
Have any of them ever experienced an adrenaline dump? Have they ever been so pumped up at having been put at the threshold of death because of some moron’s actions that they needed to take it out on something, even if it was a car hood, or door, and at the expense of their own hand?
There is one thing the cop is unquestionably guilty of: Working in the wrong era.
There was a time when post pursuit ass-kickings were obligatory. Cops knew it, suspects knew it, and there are enough old timers on both sides of the fence that will verify the assertion when I say that what this officer did was NOTHING compared to what would have happened in another place and time. This might account for why back in the day punks thought twice before running. Nowadays, they’ll flip off a cop and run for the hell of it with little fear of reprisal (unless, perhaps, it's El Monte PD doin' the pursuin').
If asked if I think if the old ways were preferable, I'd have to pause.
For years, I’ve read all manner of philosophizing about our having to rise above the violence we confront. I’ve listened to simplistic arguments that all life—however vile, wicked, or inconsequential it might actually be—is valuable. I’ve heard how we must be more humane in the execution of our duties even as so many about us degenerate further into the abyss.
And I am forced to ask if we’re being practical.
Perhaps matters of practicality shouldn’t even be considered in a profession that embraces terms like “war on drugs,” “war on organized crime,” and “war on gangs,” but is not allowed the means to fight them as such. These are our domestic Vietnams. They are wars we could win, if only we could really fight them.
In many ways, this generation of cops is better trained and equipped to do the job than any of its predecessors. But however humane they are in the performance of their duties, I don’t believe that they or the citizens they serve are necessarily safer these days.
No need to throw stats my way. I know how numbers get crunched and fudged, and no matter how creative one gets, they still can’t reconcile the difference in homicide clearance rates over the past four decades. Preservation of human life in these times is largely attributable to ever greater acts of self-limiting behavior and vigilance of individuals.
Who has society made safer?
Who has been made more vulnerable?
The law abiding. Indeed, many of our elderly—the very people who fought to protect this country’s illusory rights—cocoon themselves for fear of being victimized.
Where is the outrage?
Reserved for the likes of Richard Rodriguez, whose defenders express horror that this suspect—this human being—could come to such terrible harm as to be kicked in the face by an officer of the law.
Look at this tattooed mug! A parolee at large with a long rap sheet , his face is a cartographer’s wet dream, charting his ongoing descent into hell. He should have a tat on his forehead that reads: "Here There be Monsters." In manner, deed, and appearance, he has done everything he could to subvert his own humanity and now his metamorphosis is complete. He has become an animal and, in that backyard, he was a cornered one.
Should bad law enforcement officers be held accountable for their conduct? Of course. Maybe this cop is one of them. Maybe he isn't. (See my column on bad cops.) Now that the employing agency has been made aware of the incident, it is doing the right thing in seeing that it is thoroughly investigated.
But does that mean the news media has to continually rub our nose in the matter? Where are its priorities? Did the officer’s possible stupidity really eclipse any one of the myriad actions allegedly perpetrated by the suspect? Why aren’t we seeing the truly offensive footage, that of motorists forced to take last second evasive actions to avoid being maimed and killed during the pursuit Rodriguez allegedly triggered ?
Well, thanks to Lt. Berlingham, we know the answer: It’s all about the money.
To stay on the air, you need advertising revenue; to get that revenue, you need ratings; to get ratings, you’ve got to get viewers; to get viewers, you have to give them something more timely and more controversial than what can be found on YouTube or rotten.com. And by God, if it isn’t inherently controversial enough, you can always make it so.
There’ll be little novelty to this circus, a cautionary parable with a rotating cast and performances yearly. Nonetheless, its lessons about videotaped actions, hitting the brakes instead of prisoners, and pulling the reins of our adrenaline will remain timely.
But frankly, I’m nostalgic for the days when the pursued feared the judicial system if for nothing but the inevitable ass-kicking and street justice. H.L. Mencken would call it cathartic; Twain might find it comparable to his allegorical man who carries a cat by the tail (thereby learning “something he can learn in no other way”).
As it stands, this latest ass-kicking will be just one more thing that puts us on our heels and sees new and stricter policies when it comes to rules of engagement.
Typing these words so soon in the aftermath of the viewing colors my own take. Perhaps I’ll look back later and regret what I’ve said herein. But as of now, I don’t.
In fact, I’m booting prudence to the curb and saying the hell with any news journalist party to this ongoing conspiracy. For as any number of critics among them would say, justice denied becomes justice subverted.
And ain’t that a kick in the head?
El Monte Kicking Incident, Excessive Force, Excessive Force Allegations, Vehicle Pursuit