Nickels, Dimes, and the Night Stalker

The romantic in me would like to believe that America would want to take care of those who take care of it. But I am increasingly of the opinion that it doesn't; moreover, it doesn't want to.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

Photo by Kelly Bracken.Photo by Kelly Bracken.At one time, I thought the law enforcement profession to be relatively insulated from the economic trauma routinely inflicted elsewhere. That there was something to the whole "broken windows" theory and that if depressed neighborhoods invited crime then society would demand its investigation. The worse things got the more cops would be needed and hired.

It was the saprophytic nature of law enforcement that intrigued me, such as how our profession profited by the malfeasance of the world, and how much was added to, or deducted from, its ranks according to yet other numbers—taxes, crime rates, and the usual Compstat fudging. All work and no play might make Jack a dull boy, but detritus and decay made for better pay.

But as the years passed I saw something else taking place—a synergy between what Americans were willing to tolerate and what they weren't willing to finance. It didn't matter if the polarity was counterintuitive and contrary to every Mazlowian predicate—it was what it was. People would sooner insulate themselves with their iPads and cocoon themselves in their homes than venture elsewhere. And if those who did go out and about got victimized, then caveat emptor. The smart money was at home, and at home it would stay.

It followed that money became in commensurately short supply elsewhere, with the past decade having been a particularly rough patch. As a result, those on the front lines have had cause to worry about cutbacks, layoffs, and the lack of pay raises. That there was a corresponding diminution of respect being paid to our profession—financially, or otherwise—was something I'd long intuited.

Nothing so crystalized the reality for me as the 2008 murder of Grundy County (Tenn.) Sheriff's Deputy Anthony Tate.

Tate was shot and killed as he and an officer from the Monteagle Police Department served a probation warrant on a suspect. At the time of his death, the deputy sheriff and father of five was earning eight dollars an hour to go after bad guys and put his life on the line.

Tate's salary was less than half the mean hourly pay of an American worker, and if the Tennessee lawman was the sole source of income for his family it would have meant that the Tate family was living below the poverty line. This was his reality before his death and family's loss of income.

Since Tate's murder, there have been all manner of other reminders of what little premium our profession enjoys in America whose nickel-and-diming even came into play with the recent shooting death of Bardstown (Ky.) Police Officer Jason Ellis.

Normally, homicide investigators might have reasonably expected something of evidentiary value to have been obtained from the dashboard of Ellis's patrol unit. But at the time of his ambush murder, Ellis had been driving an older "pool car"—one of those backup numbers routinely kept at a police station for officers to use when their normally assigned ride is in the repair shop. Logistically threadbare, the absence of any on-board camera precluded any recording of Ellis' killing.

"We have no video, no audio, nothing," said Bardstown Police Chief Rick McCubbin.

The romantic in me would like to believe that America would want to take care of those who take care of it. But I am increasingly of the opinion that it doesn't; moreover, it doesn't want to. If anything, they want to dump its sworn protectors and even renege on promised pensions even as it demands more and more of those who remain to serve.

The next time you're bored, check out how many police officers the city of San Bernardino—with its population of 213,000—fields on a given shift these days, and then guess what has happened to those officers no longer deemed needed.

Part of this financial apathy is perhaps predictable, what with how we have allowed ourselves to be portrayed. Routinely referenced as fascists, synonymous in the minds of many with the less savory aspects of Orwellian and dystopian concepts, it is hardly surprising that we should be treated as a tertiary concern by the taxpayers we serve.

As intriguing as I might find all this, it pales when compared to what our citizenry will allow its tax dollars to be spent on.

There is our never-ending war on drugs and its role as precipitating agent for so many other crimes and cartels (something Americans regard with the same kind of horror Frankenstein did with his creation and for much the same reason). But as much as I oppose the drug war at a philosophical level, it is fair to wonder just where we would be without its ancillary perks and financial props.

Let's face it. So long as the charade continues, law enforcement agencies can count on all manner of federal grants and forfeited assets to help bolster their infrastructure. Small wonder there are those within our profession who would shudder at the possibility of drug usage being decriminalized and the financial peril that would follow.

But how many of those incarcerated for drug offences had to forsake their gold-plated firearms in making the successful transition to jail? In other words, just how many of those doing time for drug-related offenses are really high-rolling threats to the society that jails them? Damn few would be my bet.

And in the hierarchy of human and inhuman transgressions, I find it difficult to relegate some pothead to the same plane as a rapist, robber, burglar, murderer, or pedophile. Richard "Night Stalker" Ramirez was all these things, and more.

What a difference a generation makes. The death of the man who was known as the Night Stalker hardly merited a comment even in local news; an incongruous take considering how much the news media at one time thrived on his predatory exploits (for the news media, too, has a saprophytic nature).

The relative lack of publicity over Ramirez's death is a source of ambivalence. I am happy for the families of his victims, as well as those who survived his acts, who needn't any additional reminders of horrors committed. Moreover, I certainly don't want to afford the man's legacy any additional publicity, especially as it turns my stomach that he actually received fan mail and marriage proposals in the aftermath of his terror, a phenomenon most recently mirrored with the Boston Marathon bombers.

But the fact remains that no one held Los Angeles County in greater terror during my 25-year career with the department than the Night Stalker. And that appraisal stands without dwelling on his excursions into other countries during a murderous spree that extended into Orange County and as far north as San Francisco.

No one who wasn't a cop in L.A. County during that unbearably hot summer of 1985 has any idea what it was like working patrol while the Night Stalker was committing his crimes. In the San Gabriel Valley, much of an early morning shift was spent chasing the radio from one prowler call to the next as people literally sweated the night away (I happened to be working the desk the night he shot and killed Dayle Okazaki and wounded her roommate in Temple Station's jurisdiction).

Gun dealers and security companies enjoyed banner sales, and LASD's homicide team burned the midnight oil. Ramirez's ensuing trial—one that took four years to seat a jury and cost $1.6 million dollars by its conclusion—dominated headlines almost as much as his crimes, faring second only to his fellow throat-slitter O.J. when it came to the amount of ink spilled in our local newspapers.

Many a time I have wished that his arresting deputy had never arrived to rescue the bastard from the citizens of East L.A. who came closer to exacting any true justice from the parasite than the state ever would. But more than that I regret that California saw fit to keep this man—who raped women and children and mutilated the bodies of those he most savagely murdered and never expressed an ounce of remorse for it—alive for twenty-seven years longer than his victims and to the tune of millions of taxpayer dollars.

Well, lest I come across as even more scatological than normal, I will consolidate my thoughts via two algebraic notations:

Good guys > Murderers and rapists > Drug offenders

Cops and their like are inherently more deserving of having monies spent on them than assholes; assholes warrant a bigger piece of the custodial fiscal pie than low-level offenders because they pose the greater threat to society.

Common sense > trenchant idealism

As much as I would be more than willing to see our judicial dollars diverted from keeping low-level offenders in jail and driven towards keeping genuine threats to society locked up longer, things are seriously screwed up when death penalty opponents are too damn stupid to see that by protracting the lives of some assholes they do so at considerable risk of those most deserving of the opportunities to live and thrive.

With that in mind, allow me this question:

What difference do you think even a fraction of that money spent on Richard Ramirez might have made for Shane Tate's family?

Until we come up with an answer to our misplaced priorities, American officers will not only be doing more with less, but dying more with less, too.

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Author Dean Scoville Headshot
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