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National Review Online


A Cop's Life

July 23, 2002

By Heather Mac Donald

How much is a cop’s life worth? Judging by media attention, not much. On June 22, a black man shot a sheriff’s deputy in Seattle several times in the head with the deputy’s own gun, killing him instantly. The deputy had been trying to restrain the man, just out of jail for assaulting another officer, as he ran naked through traffic pounding on cars. The case raises troubling questions about whether the ubiquitous crusade to portray cops as racist has resulted in a potentially lethal reluctance to use necessary force. But in the three weeks since the killing occurred, the incident has received only two mentions in the press outside Seattle — an article in the New York Times, and a passing allusion on CNN.

Compare the media tsunami around the Inglewood, Ca., angry-cop case. In the first nine days after an Inglewood officer was videotaped slugging a cuffed black teen once in the head, 370 stories on the event, or 41 a day, flooded the nation’s airwaves and presses. The attorney general spoke out against the Inglewood police; the Justice Department mobilized its local and national investigators; Al Sharpton and Johnnie Cochran descended upon Inglewood to pump up protest; a grand jury returned an assault indictment against the officer in record time; and the ever-gratifying narrative about rampant, racist police brutality is once again pulsating through the country.

The disparate treatment of the two cases illustrates the media’s blinding prejudices when it comes to policing and race, prejudices that make officers’ jobs increasingly difficult. Those biases manifest themselves according to the following template:

— Delete immediate context.

When Officer Jeremy Morse arrived at the now-infamous Inglewood gas station, Donovan Jackson was already fighting L.A. sheriff’s deputies. The deputies had stopped Jackson’s father for expired registration tags on his car, and were questioning him about his outdated driver’s license, they say, when Jackson began attacking them. The teen then turned on Morse and clawed him in the head. After the wildly thrashing teen was finally cuffed, Morse picked him up and slammed him against a patrol car. Morse’s attorney claims that Jackson had gone limp and the officers did not want him on the ground as a crowd was gathering. Jackson then grabbed Morse’s testicles, according to the police report filed immediately after the incident, provoking Morse to hit him in the head.

Once a suspect is restrained, an officer’s right to use force against him ends totally, no matter how violent his previous behavior. Absent the facts that Morse alleges, he clearly used excessive, and hence, unlawful force. But whether or not the teen’s hold on Morse’s privates legally justifies the punch (a grand jury has decided it does not), it certainly makes the blow more understandable and removes it from the realm of malice or gratuitous retaliation. For that reason, very few of the print articles on the incident, and almost none of the TV stories, tell the public about Jackson’s behavior before and just after he was cuffed. They present the video, which begins only with Jackson being thrown on the hood, in a perfect vacuum. Either anchormen and reporters are extraordinarily ill informed about the news they cover, or they have made a deliberate decision to withhold the context of Morse’s punch to heighten the appearance of raw brutality. Up against such ignorant or biased reporting, the police don’t stand a chance.

— Delete broader context.

Every day officers are cursed at, spat upon, assaulted, and sometimes shot at, without striking back. They have millions of contacts with civilians and make thousands of arrests, and in the huge preponderance of cases, they act appropriately and with restraint. Police professionalism has increased enormously in the last three decades; never before has training placed such emphasis on using words to defuse potentially explosive stops. Excessive force is denounced at every turn in police academies, and the vast majority of officers have gotten the message.

While the media hates good news, especially regarding the proponents of law and order, it would be nice if they conveyed some sense of how aberrant the behavior captured in the Inglewood videotape is. Instead, their instinct is just the opposite, as discussed below.

— Spotting pseudo patterns.

The Los Angeles Times hopefully ran on article on July 15 called “Inglewood Police Accused of Abuse in Other Cases.” Over a dozen cases of excessive force have been lodged against the Inglewood department "in recent years," reported the paper. (Just how many years remains a mystery.)

It would have been as newsworthy to have disclosed that summer is frequently quite hot. A police department with no civilian complaints against it is a police department that never makes an arrest. While some civilian complaints are fully justified, criminals and cop haters constantly file nuisance complaints to retaliate against their arresting officers. Over the last five years, for example, 47 percent of the complaints filed against the New York Police Department were dismissed because the complainant disappeared or withdrew his case, suggesting that the charges were bogus to begin with.

Carl McLaughlin, a black Brooklyn detective, is intimately familiar with nuisance complaints. One petty thief has been filing charges against McLaughlin for years in retaliation for getting locked up; none have stuck. The department has the thug on tape threatening to “f**k McLaughlin up.” “He’s a sophisticated kook,” observes McLaughlin philosophically. “He knows the department will entertain him, not me.”

Detective Robert Reedy, McLaughlin’s black partner, is also well-acquainted with retaliatory complaints. Reedy had to fight a Jamaican drug dealer to arrest him. The dealer smirked back at Reedy: “I’m going to hit Lotto on your badge.”

Despite the virtual meaninglessness of the Los Angeles Times’s complaint figures, the New York Times greedily seized on the data to editorialize about Inglewood’s out-of-control police force, a topic the New York editorial board knows literally nothing about.

— Playing the race card.

Any cop will tell you: Fight the police and you risk getting popped. “It could’ve been some wise guy white kid who gets smacked just as quick,” observes Pat Harnett, a veteran from the NYPD’s narcotics division. “Race is not the issue; the behavior that led up to it is.” In fact, police use force most often against members of their own race, but as John Perazzo has pointed out on, the media has no interest in any combination of police-civilian force incidents other than white on black. There is not a shred of evidence that race, rather than pain or frustration, propelled Officer Morse to whack Jackson, but the cop-hating press has never needed evidence for its charges.

— Delegitimating police authority.

Once released, racial poison spreads unstoppably, undermining every legitimate police action. In the frenzy to paint the police as racist in the Inglewood case, anti-police activists and their media mouthpieces claimed that the only reason the L.A. deputies stopped Jackson’s father in the first place was because he was black.

This way madness lies. Challenging the police for stopping a black unregistered driver amounts to the rule: Blacks are immune from the law. Consonant with that rule, the L.A. District Attorney has decided not to charge Donovan Jackson with assaulting an officer, though the Inglewood and L.A. cops bear physical evidence of his attack. Every day, police officers are subject to an informal version of the immunity rule: if they stop a black driver for speeding, the likely first words out of the driver’s mouth is: “You only stopped me because I’m black.” Officers face the choice: back off of interactions with blacks or be accused of racism. For many, the choice is clear: From Minneapolis to Prince George’s County, Md., to Cincinnati, citations, summonses, and arrests have drastically fallen following race-based anti-cop campaigns.

Even whites occasionally benefit from race-inspired delegitimation of law enforcement. The man who filmed the Inglewood altercation is a lowlife with outstanding warrants for burglary, DWI, and a hit-and-run accident. Yet local police haters have turned him into a righteous martyr, following his arrest on the outstanding charges. Congresswoman Maxine Waters, backed by local ministers and politicians, is raising $10,000 for his defense. She scoffed at the notion that he belongs behind bars. “Those are minor offenses,” she said breezily, setting a new record for defining deviancy down. Danny Blakewell, a local race activist, announced: “Our community wants to welcome him as a family member,” as if Inglewood doesn’t have enough crime already.

Now look at Seattle. Black leaders took five days to comment on the assassination of Deputy Richard Herzog by felon Ronald Matthews, and did so only after a public outcry about their silence. Their first words were to deny any racial element to the incident, and to criticize the public for “politicizing” the shooting. “This is not a black, red, brown or white issue,” said the president of the Seattle Urban League. “This is a mental health issue.”

Maybe he’s right. Perhaps Matthews would have gunned down a black cop, too, to round out his previous attacks on white officers. But if Herzog had shot him, there is no doubt that these same activists would have made race, not “mental health,” the defining element of the event. They have done so in the past like clockwork, most recently in April, after an officer shot a parked truck driver who pulled a gun on him. The prolonged uproar over that justified shooting, added to the usual background noise about cop racism, has led many in Seattle to wonder whether fear of a racial backlash inhibited Deputy Herzog from using sufficient force to subdue Matthews.

Ask cops about the race-inhibition effect, and the answer is clear. “We’re scared to death,” a Brooklyn Street Crime Unit officer told me recently. “I have no fear of dying, I thrive on danger. But I got a wife and kids. I can’t afford to lose my house and my job over some phony race incident.” The easiest way for a cop to protect himself against trumped-up racism charges is to shut down. “If you do nothing, no one can do anything to you,” explains Lt. Mark Christian of the San Antonio Police Department. “You’re not punished if you don’t accomplish anything on the job.”

Rage and frustration are building among cops. “All we hear is: ’We’re racially profiling,’” exploded a black Street Crime Unit officer at an NYPD “sensitivity training” session. “I can’t stand the media,” he thundered. “They’re a bunch of lying pigs, they put down the NYPD every single day. People forget that some guys are actually committing crimes,” the officer warned. If the racial drumbeat against the police continues, however, the public will start to remember. Let’s hope they do so before another officer loses his life.

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