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Why Cops Shouldn't Go With the Flow

May 23, 2005|Joe Domanick | Joe Domanick is a senior fellow at USC Annenberg's Institute for Justice and Journalism.

Two weeks ago, 10 Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies wildly fired 120 rounds at an unarmed, fleeing black motorist who was driving an SUV similar to one involved in a crime. Five nearby houses in a black and brown Compton neighborhood were hit -- with bullets barely missing innocent occupants. The fleeing suspect, Winston Hayes (who turned out not to be the man the officers were seeking), was shot four times; a deputy caught in the crossfire was wounded.

It's an L.A. story so old, predictable and familiar -- remember 13-year-old Devin Brown? -- that it seems almost banal to discuss it again, or to ask the obvious, larger questions, such as how many times does this have to happen before more than cosmetic changes are made? And will we ever seriously address what the shooting says about the nation's attitude toward poor black and brown people? So instead of big questions, let's stick to the shooting itself.

"In the psychology of big-city policing," former LAPD Assistant Chief David Dotson told me, "the cardinal sin is failure to act in concert with your fellow officers. If one officer starts shooting, the others have to follow suit -- no one wants to be accused of not helping him dispose of a threat."

We saw this phenomenon also play out last year when Stanley Miller was repeatedly hit with a heavy flashlight at the end of an LAPD pursuit. The last officer to arrive did the whacking -- after Miller had been subdued and was offering no resistance. Nobody would later say that that officer failed to support his fellow cops.

The imperative to act with fellow cops can't entirely explain the deputies' lack of discipline in Compton, their utter disregard for others' safety. The deeper problems are leadership and training.

The Sheriff's Department -- at least on paper -- has one of the best independent investigative units for monitoring police shootings and excessive force in the country. Staffed with former civil rights attorneys, it is headed by a highly respected lawyer, Michael Gennaco. Moreover, for over a decade, Merrick Bobb, special counsel to the Board of Supervisors and police-oversight expert, has been producing reports identifying abusive situations and suggesting solutions. Also, Sheriff Lee Baca is a progressive and decent lawman.

Yet this drunken-cowboy shooting still occurred, which tells us two things. The first is how difficult it is to reform entrenched police departments like the Sheriff's Department and the LAPD -- which for decades routinely ignored or reflexively defended egregious abuses committed by their officers. The second is that despite Baca's seven years in office and his visionary talk, his deputies are still not walking the walk. They rolled out when a driver wouldn't stop, got frustrated and angry and shot at him again and again.

It was sheer luck that Hayes -- who was charged Friday with felony evading and driving under the influence of drugs -- is recovering, and that no bystanders were hit. But luck isn't a policing strategy.

These deputies either didn't care or hadn't been trained to understand that not every crime and every flight is of the same magnitude, that firing into a vehicle should be the last, not the first, option; that vast numbers of people in L.A. live survival-of-the-fittest lives in circumstances over which they have little control; that these people may break laws and still not deserve to be treated as "bad guys." It will be interesting to see whether the deputies are indicted for penal code violations.

What the Sheriff's Department needs is not only a leader who recognizes all this, but one who makes it clear that dehumanizing conduct will not be tolerated. What it does not need is more lip service and a nod-and-wink attitude that all but shouts to rookies: "We say all this touchy-feely stuff, but we don't really mean it."

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