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We Have Met the Monster, and It Is Us

Society: The Rampart scandal shows the danger of a mind-set that dehumanizes and demonizes 'the other.'

March 10, 2000|GREGORY J. BOYLE | Gregory J. Boyle is a Jesuit priest and the director of Jobs For a Future/Homeboy Industries

Two nurses wheel a 19-year-old gang member who had died that morning to surgery to harvest his organs. One nurse, noticing the gang tattoos, says to the other, "Who would want this monster's heart?"

A member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, speaking of those victimized by the rogue Rampart Division cops, says that, after all, "they aren't the pillars of the community."

Ex-Officer Rafael Perez, in his final apology before the court, says: "He who chases monsters must see that he not become a monster himself." Yet the problem was not in Perez becoming a monster but in his thinking it was monsters he was chasing.

Disbanding CRASH, increasing the police department's command staff, heightening supervision, monitoring hiring practices, improved screening and training of officers--are all good, solid, half-measures that will get us through tomorrow. They will not serve us very well the day after tomorrow.

Police experts Joseph McNamara and David Dotson have correctly underscored the need to overhaul the police culture and its fundamental and misguided military style. Yet deeper than that is a spirit that dehumanizes and demonizes "the other." The Rampart scandal will forever indicate how perilous this mind-set can become.

I have seen young men whom I've known since they were kids maintain a balanced view of the causes of crime and the complexities of gang life. They often lived next door to gang members or were even related to some. Then they get "trained" as law enforcement officers and suddenly see themselves called to "chase monsters." It is as predictable as it is disconcerting.

I am more worried about the inner spirit of the police than its institutional container. No amount of supervision will ever keep an officer from seeing the gang member and the career criminal as monstrously less than human. And it is this bankrupt, unsophisticated view that will promise more scandals in our future.

Officers don't need further training; they need education. It's not about how to handle a given situation but how to see the individuals involved in it. The demonizing mind-set is unstoppable unless you decide to stop it. The police department can choose to reverse this indoctrination and change the air their officers breathe.

A poster hangs in Los Angeles County Jail with Perez's apology emblazoned on it as a caution to the officers who work there. It causes one deputy to ask himself, "Am I becoming a monster?" This is the wrong question. The poster should read: "No Human Being Is a Monster." If an officer truly believed that, how much supervision would that officer really need? If a guard at Corcoran state prison believed that, how likely would it be that he'd mistreat his charges?

A gang member can be a lot of things, ranging from mixed-up kid to a psychopath. But a "monster" he is not.

Like most complex issues, the dehumanizing stance is larger than law enforcement. Surely, Proposition 21, the juvenile crime measure that passed Tuesday, could not have passed unless the vast majority of voters felt that, in approving it, they themselves were part of the "monster chase." For Proposition 21 to pass, one had to believe that the young people targeted in that measure were somewhat less than human and therefore not worthy of a judge's discretion.

And certainly the entire civilized world continues to stand, slack-jawed, as it watches our country execute its own people in our prisons. Most assuredly, that couldn't happen if we felt humans were involved.

It is the hope of us all to see the police force return, if you will, to its divine purpose. We cannot just change the shell and leave this disordered spirit intact. We all must change, as the Quakers say, to see "that of God" in the other. For the truest measure of ourselves as compassionate and civilized human beings is not how lavishly we honor our heroes, nor how tenderly we nurture our children, nor how politely we select our leaders. The real test comes precisely in our treatment of the criminal. If the very thought of that makes us recoil, then we still have much work to do.

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