YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Issues That Raise the Hackles

October 12, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

Outrage time again. It has been building for a long time, but a recent front page in The Times broke it loose. Side-by-side stories: a Santa Ana police officer shoots a running man in the back while the victim's wife and children watch on a residential street; Costa Mesa police officers dress up like contractors, then arrest a group of men who seek work from them. A picture, also on the front page, shows these men handcuffed, clear dangers to society because they had the effrontery to look for honest work.

Several months ago, I wrote a piece questioning the judgment involved in a police shooting in a crowded parking lot in South Coast Plaza. I quoted Capt. Tom Lazar of the Costa Mesa Police Department as saying: "Our officers are taught to use firearms only when their lives or the lives of other people are in danger. . . . But you've got to remember, they have to make that judgment within seconds. . . . What it finally boils down to is the judgment of the individual officer."

In the aftermath of that column, The Times received a lengthy letter from Dr. Robert Sonntag, a Corona del Mar internist. Dr. Sonntag wrote, in part: "If a policeman is not willing to risk his own life to avoid injury to others (whether suspect or bystander), then he does not belong on the force. . . . As a physician, I have frequently placed my own life on the line for patients with life-threatening, communicable disease. I would have it no other way. I have lost one lung, surgically removed, the result of a practice-acquired infection. To use police logic, I should shoot down every infected patient who might pose a risk.

"The most chilling fact of all is this: The police, once they draw their guns, are trained always to kill . . . never to give a warning shot. Never to wound, never to shoot in the leg or the arm. Naturally, that is the safest action for an officer, but that must never be our concern. This is the attitude of a police who have declared war against the people.

"The heart of this tragedy is an indifferent and uninformed citizenry and legislature. So inured are we to the daily disclosures of police atrocities that we take them for granted as a 'necessary' ingredient of contemporary life. . . . Given the choice of confronting a cop with a gun or armed robbers, I would take my chances with the latter any day."

If an Establishment physician feels this way, how must the little people--the minorities without status or clout in this ultraconservative, law-and-order county--feel? The man who ran from the Santa Ana officer two weeks ago was a petty thief, frightened out of his wits. He paid for that with his life. So did a young man in Anaheim earlier this week when he was killed by police, allegedly after grappling for a gun as he was trying to climb a fence to escape from the site of a drug stakeout.

I once asked a former Newport Beach police chief how many of the people stopped by his officers were actually criminals, posing some danger to society. He estimated about 1%. When I asked him why the other 99% are also treated like criminals--I had just experienced this after a routine traffic stop and it happened repeatedly to my students at UC Irvine--he said that the police have no way of knowing which group a subject falls into. If he was serious--and I think he was--then Dr. Sonntag is justified in his fears and police professionalism is a myth.

The Costa Mesa "contractor" police scam was, of course, the byproduct of municipal policies that seem to achieve new lows in wrongheadedness each week. A court will decide whether or not this was entrapment, but if it wasn't, that term should be removed from the book. If nothing else, I hope this incident will shut down some of those people who complain endlessly that all indigents are lazy, good-for-nothing bums who spend their lives on the public dole avoiding work. Many of the same people who mouth such cliches support a local policy that punishes those same indigents when they try desperately to find work.

In addition, one could assume that the major problems with which we are dealing in this country today are homosexuality, government support of the arts and the passage of a constitutional amendment to protect the flag, according to news inspired by several county congressmen.

Then we have Orange County Rep. Ron Packard (R-Carlsbad)--who usually takes a back seat to his noisier colleagues--throwing a bash in Virginia for Oliver North, explaining that "he didn't keep all the rules, but the intent was there. . . . "

What North did, of course, was break the law, frequently and with impunity. Packard went on to say that he believes Orange County has a particular affinity with North and his cause. I would like to opt out of that group, and I suspect there are a million or so other Orange Countians who would like to join me.

And finally, another newspaper juxtaposition that sends a very clear message about priorities in this wealthy county in which we live. A large picture on the front page of The Times Orange County section showed homeless people--since evicted--living under an Orange County bridge because a few thousand dollars can't be found to provide them a temporary shelter. Beside this picture is a lengthy, upbeat story about the successful efforts to raise millions of dollars to rebuild the Huntington Beach Municipal Pier. First things first.

Los Angeles Times Articles