Most summer nights when I leave the office, I eventually wind up on my couch watching a baseball game. Anyway, back in June, the game I was watching was rained out, or too lopsided to watch, or it was a Monday and nobody was playing, or I rolled over on the remote and switched the channel. But somehow I ended up on one of the local news channels watching a police vehicle pursuit.
In the past, these so-called "car chases" were one of the few things that could make me turn off the tube and do something more productive with my life. But in the last few months, we've published a lot of material on police pursuits, so I decided to watch.
And I learned some things. First, this was not a car chase. "Bullitt" is a car chase. The "French Connection" is a car chase. This was more like a bad parade, a really bad and boring parade that was probably no more interesting for the officers on the scene.
Let me summarize. A kid reportedly swiped a compact car somewhere in the fabled South Central district of our fair city. The Los Angeles Police Department pursued, and the stolen car, the cops, and the media started driving around and around through a mixed residential and business neighborhood. It was for the most part a slow-speed chase, and it was clear from the beginning that it would drag on until the fleeing suspect got tired or until the car he was driving seized up from running into stuff.
The suspect wasn't trying to escape. But he ran stop signs, blasted through red lights, and drove on the wrong side of the road. He was having a blast, leaning out of the window, throwing gang signs at his "homies," and just generally acting the fool. And the longer I sat there watching this, the angrier I got.
This jerk had endangered the good people of the neighborhood who might step into the road at the wrong time. He rammed into an innocent motorist, and he tied up the resources of numerous LAPD personnel. Worse, he destroyed some poor citizen's car. The car he was driving, the reportedly stolen car, was a compact with one of those "doughnut" spare tires on one of the front rims. It clearly belonged to someone who couldn't afford proper tires for his or her car. And not only did the alleged thief ram the vehicle into another car, he drove it for nearly 30 minutes with the engine overheating and the radiator spewing steam, likely turning the lightweight engine into slag. I felt really bad for the owner of that car.
Maybe that's why when the car finally stopped, and the juvenile suspect got out and lay face down on the ground, I really wanted the cops making the arrest to knock some sense into him.
But, of course, they didn't. It probably crossed their minds. They wouldn't be human if it hadn't. But they didn't.
The more cynical of my journalist friends would argue that the cops making the arrest didn't abuse that scrawny, young suspect because they knew they were on TV. But I don't agree.
Those pursuing and arresting officers showed consummate professionalism. They did their jobs calmly and coolly, and they followed their training despite the hour or more of frustration and anger that must have built up in them during the stupidity of that chase.
Watching that arrest, I was reminded of some interviews I had just completed with commanders of special units that policed the recent anti-war marches. One of the questions that I asked each of these distinguished officers was how did they manage to keep their emotions from boiling over when they saw protesters putting down the military, abusing the cops, and even burning the flag.
I can sum up all of their responses in one word: "professionalism."
That's why those LAPD officers didn't knock some sense into that juvenile. It's why, as you can read on page 44, the anti-war protests were policed without major violent incidents. And it's what separates trained police officers from the vigilante instincts of a guy sitting on his couch who should have been watching a baseball game.