Officer Hits the Prime Time With Video Camera
For the last 14 months, Don Carlos Jackson has kept a video camera close at hand as part of a campaign that has made him, possibly, the most hated cop in squad rooms around Los Angeles.
Whether driving his Corvette through Marina del Rey on the way home from a date or sitting in a van with friends in Watts, Jackson has been ready to tape fellow police officers in action.
By his own estimate, he has stopped as many as 300 times to watch police as they question others. And sometimes he has used himself as bait, driving through neighborhoods where he suspects a 30-year-old black man might draw some attention from authorities.
Jackson, a Hawthorne police sergeant on disability leave, calls his patrols a “litmus test” of how Los Angeles-area law enforcement agencies treat black people. And in most cases, he admits, the police have passed the test--officers have acted with restraint even when he pestered them to justify why they arrested someone or to explain what law empowered them to ask a car’s passengers for identification.
As a result, most of his “stings” were unspectacular and his tapes drew dust on the shelf.
But this week Jackson hit prime time.
With an NBC television camera capturing the action, two Long Beach police officers stopped him and a friend for allegedly weaving across traffic lanes. Audiences nationwide watched as Jackson got out of the car, hesitated before putting his hands over his head and argued with Officer Mark Dickey, who then, with a stream of obscenities, apparently pushed Jackson’s face into a plate glass window.
The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office and the FBI have begun investigations of the Saturday night incident. And Jackson’s tactics have been debated from the opinion pages of newspapers to the Los Angeles barber shop he uses. Some have questioned his actions, while others have asked: Who is Don Jackson and what is he trying to prove?
Jackson said in an interview that he did not welcome the violent confrontation that made him a celebrity, but neither was he displeased by the reverberations of the Long Beach officer’s action.
“As I was sitting in the back of the police car,” he said, “as much pain as I was in, I had a slight smile on my face. I said to myself, ‘This guy has done all the work for me.’ ”
But in the close-knit fraternity of law enforcement, the incident only solidified the feeling of most that Jackson is an enemy of the officer on the beat. Police officials in a number of departments had already cautioned their troops to be on the alert for the off-duty Hawthorne sergeant. Jackson himself said he had heard of his photograph being used as a squad room dart board.
“He’s not one of us,” one Hawthorne officer said. “He’s not a cop anymore.”
Yet Jackson is a man born into the police fraternity and one who knows firsthand what it feels like to have to defend yourself against brutality complaints.
The son of a career sheriff’s deputy, his life was built on a bedrock of conformity and assimilation, at least until it was remade by the troubling issue of race.
Jackson was bused from Los Angeles’ inner city to mostly white Birmingham High School in the San Fernando Valley during the late 1970s. There he followed the advice of his father, Woodrow, who retired in 1984 after 29 years with the Sheriff’s Department, and who said he taught his son to prove himself with hard work, “not with free promotions or affirmative action or anything else.”
Elected captain of Birmingham’s wrestling and football teams, Don Jackson “was one of the most popular kids on campus,” recalled the school’s athletic director, Louis Ramirez. “He was a hard worker who never gave up.”
But Jackson said his high school years left him with some bitter memories as well--such as the racial taunts of a white student who had a neighboring locker.
He portrays himself as an intense teen-ager who kept his emotions inside.
“I was completely by myself, and that has been consistent in my life,” he said. “You can’t afford to fight all the time, so you just go about your business.”
He added, however, “I always felt, it’s got to stop somewhere.”
After graduating from California Lutheran College, Jackson joined the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department as a deputy in the County Jail. About 1 1/2 years later, in 1982, he was hired by the Hawthorne Police Department.
Some Good Qualities
Colleagues who would later criticize his public campaigns admitted that Jackson was a good officer. One superior, Capt. David Barnes, described him as an “an intelligent, articulate, good-looking guy.”
But like many law enforcement officers, Jackson found that the people he dealt with sometimes questioned the force he used.
Court records show that Hawthorne was sued in 1982 by a man named Gilberto Campos, who alleged that Jackson assaulted him without provocation outside Hawthorne Community Hospital.
Jackson said that he merely defended himself from Campos, whose elbow was dislocated as he was wrestled to the ground.
Although Campos was convicted in Inglewood Municipal Court of battery on a police officer, the city eventually agreed to pay him $3,500, Hawthorne City Atty. Michael Adamson said.
Not the First Complaint
Jackson also acknowledged that he was the target of two minor complaints from prisoners in Ventura County Jail but said he had “never been found guilty of excessive force.”
Jackson portrayed such complaints as a price of certain professions.
“Doctors, lawyers and police officers are all vulnerable to people who believe that their conduct” is not proper, he said.
The complaints did not hold back his career. He was promoted to sergeant in December, 1986.
But Jackson said his work in Hawthorne, where 86% of the department’s officers are white, was marred when some of his colleagues called him and other blacks “nigger.”
He said he was also subjected to racist jokes, such as the time a white officer waved a white-female doll in his face and said, “Come on Jackson, I know you want a white woman.”
“After two years I said, ‘I’m not gaining anything by being quiet,’ ” he recalled. “I felt I was less of a man when I was putting up with that all the time, when it was totally disrespectful to me.”
Other Hawthorne officers say that Jackson overreacted to minor taunts that once seemed not to bother him.
Clearly, relations were strained, and department officials were relieved when he was placed on stress disability in April, 1987. Jackson also filed a lawsuit, still pending, accusing the Police Department of racial discrimination.
He currently receives $224 a week, about one-fourth of his pay when he was on regular duty.
Jackson will not be granted a disability retirement until city officials determine that his stress condition is “permanent and stationary,” said Doug Gates, Hawthorne’s employee relations officer.
Jackson said he makes due on his scant salary by “eating less” and living in his father’s Inglewood condominium. His grandmother loaned him $4,000 to buy his video equipment, he said.
Jackson said he resolved to begin his public fight because of an incident soon after he left active duty.
Woodrow Jackson, 61, was driving home from a family gathering when he was stopped by police in Pomona. The elder Jackson subsequently filed a $50,000 claim against that city, alleging that without provocation, two white officers grabbed him and slammed him to the ground.
The experience made his “very strong” father cry, Jackson said, adding, “For me to see him crying was the ultimate injury.”
Pomona officials would not release details of the case, but said they expect to reject Jackson’s claim within the next week.
Formed a Group
Soon after, Jackson formed Law Enforcement Officers for Justice, eventually recruiting about 60 other police officers, most of them black, from around Los Angeles.
The group publicly supported complaints of officers and citizens of racism and misconduct in several police departments, including those in Santa Monica and Torrance.
By the end of 1987, Jackson was also carting around his video camera looking for evidence.
He said he went to a series of communities--including Beverly Hills, El Segundo, Glendale, Manhattan Beach and Torrance--to test the response of police. In each case, officers confronted him without using excessive force, he said.
Jackson said he believes most police officers “are good guys and they are just trying to do their jobs.”
“But you have 10%, 15% or 20% who are making everybody’s life miserable because they are brutalizing people and then making other people react with antagonism toward police,” he said.
Jackson has drawn more than his share of antagonism as well, much of it after he drove six black youths to Westwood last February and then videotaped Los Angeles police as they questioned and searched the youths. He said the experiment showed that the officers were stopping blacks indiscriminately.
Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, in an videotaped speech played at police roll calls soon after, said Jackson was guilty of “a crazy, crazy, stupid, idiotic act.”
“You got cops out there who are already stressed out,” said Inglewood Police Chief Ray Johnson, whose officers got into an argument with Jackson when he videotaped them making an arrest. “They are terrified. And now what do they do? Do they back off, or do they continue to do their jobs?
“I think (Jackson) is trying to become a martyr. He is going way, way beyond what he has to do.”
Should Be Admired
But Garland Hardeman, a Los Angeles policeman who is a friend and adviser to Jackson, said other officers should admire him.
“What he has done is an obligation that we all should take,” said Hardeman “No organization that has the power police do can (operate) on internal monitoring alone.”
Jackson said the NBC producers approached him about demonstrating one of his “stings” for television, leading him to Long Beach.
To one of his former Hawthorne colleagues, who asked to remain anonymous, it was a case of Jackson using his police experience to “push all the right buttons” to provoke a confrontation once his car was pulled over. He noted that Jackson did not remain seated, as most motorists would when approached by a policeman.
Jackson admitted that he may have frightened Long Beach Officer Dickey.
“But you can’t bait a good cop,” he said. “I’m giving police what they see all the time--both law-abiding black people and non-law-abiding black people. And they are not taking the time to discern which is which. . . .”
“He (Dickey) went from giving me a command (to raise his hands) to using maximum force, which was more than was necessary,” Jackson said.
But Dickey’s attorney, Michael Hannon, said Jackson was under suspicion of drunk driving because his car was weaving and that Dickey used “proper police tactics” in pushing the uncooperative Jackson up against a building. The breaking of the window was an “unfortunate” accident, he said.
Jackson has been a busy man in the days since the incident, besieged by requests for interviews and feelers from movie producers.
He said he knows, however, that agitating other policemen is an avocation that could be dangerous.
“I wake up at night sometimes, sweating,” he said. “I have a dream that I have been shot or I get hurt. But I don’t let (fear) take over.”
He also knows that policemen are not the only people who question what he does.
When he slipped into a Los Angeles barber shop this week for a quick trim between television interviews, Jackson found several black men discussing “that Hawthorne guy.”
He said the customers did not recognize him, as one declared: “That guy is too damn radical. He’s running around stirring up trouble all over the place. . . . The police are just trying to do their job.”
Jackson asked the man if “that guy” might be trying to point out a pattern of police abuse.
According to Jackson, the man bellowed, “Why, he ain’t got no way of proving that!”
Jackson and his father laughed at the story.
“What I’m up against,” Jackson concluded later, “is that even blacks side with the police. There is a presumption that the police are doing their job, and you’ve got to overcome that by giving people clear evidence.”
Times staff writers Gerald Faris, David Freed, Jesse Katz, and Chris Woodyard also contributed to this article.