Police corruption was one of the principal issues that swept the reformers to power in Los Angeles 67 years ago.
But, paradoxically, because the reformers mistrusted traditional forms of civic association -- like political parties -- and maintained the Progressives’ dogmatic trust in managerial government, they bequeathed the city a stunted civil society in which the Los Angeles Police Department assumed an outsized role. Think of this place as one of those Third World countries in which the army believes itself the embodiment of the nation’s spirit, the custodian of its ideals and the guardian of its traditions.
In incoherent Los Angeles, with its largely self-absorbed and unusually transient population, that’s pretty much the way the LAPD thought of itself in the years after the reformers’ chief, William Parker, took the force off the take. Since then, the notion of the LAPD as virtue’s thin blue line has made the department -- again, paradoxically -- both unusually resistant to civilian control and unusually attractive to idealists.
Much has changed since the post-Rampart scandal imposition of a federal consent decree and the appointment of William Bratton as police chief. But the LAPD remains a difficult institution on which to get a handle. So for those readers anxious to look beyond the usual roundup of analytic suspects, a good place to start is with Jack Dunphy’s columns.
For the past four years, some of the most interesting and artful writing about the LAPD and American policing in general has been done by an LAPD officer who employs the pseudonym “Jack Dunphy” in a regular column for the online edition of the National Review, the country’s oldest and most influential journal of conservative opinion.
Within a day of last week’s police beating of suspected car thief Stanley Miller by an LAPD officer, for example, Dunphy was online with a column that included this: “In viewing the tape of the arrest, shot from a helicopter hovering several hundred feet over the scene, I don’t see any justification for the pummeling the officer with the flashlight appears to dish out. Having said that, let’s acknowledge that the officer in question had a better view of things than does someone watching a video replay on television.”
He then went on to pinpoint with precision exactly what would transpire in the week ahead and to accurately name the players, right down to activist Najee Ali. Along the way, he took a swipe at the Los Angeles Times, whose website paired video footage of last week’s incident with a clip of the Rodney King beating, and the New York Times for referring to Miller and King as merely “motorists.”
“I started writing the column after an e-mail exchange with [National Review writer and editor] Jonah Goldberg before the 2000 Democratic Convention,” said Dunphy, who spoke to the paper on the understanding that his identity would remain confidential. “He invited me to record my thoughts for posting on their website. He told me I should keep it to about 1,000 words, but when I was done I had over 3,000. I sent it all and told them to use what they liked. They split it in two and ran the whole thing over two days -- and Jack Dunphy was born.”
‘Like Raymond Chandler’
Richard Lowry, National Review’s editor, recalls that granting use of the pseudonym was, at the time, “a topic of discussion, but we figured he had a compelling enough reason -- fear of being fired -- and he was worth it because his stuff is so well reported and written. I read that first piece and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is like Raymond Chandler, smart, hard-boiled and funny.”
It also doesn’t hurt that Dunphy, whose columns receive 15,000 hits a day, also has a clearly articulated conservative viewpoint. “Jack is a law-and-order, take-the-consequences, personal responsibility kind of guy,” Lowry said.
Conservative legal scholar Heather Mac Donald, a Manhattan Institute fellow and author of the book “Are Cops Racist?,” also is a Dunphy admirer. “I think he’s extraordinarily eloquent, fair and honest,” she said. “He expresses in very concrete terms the kinds of agonizing choices officers so often face and have to resolve in a split second.”
Former Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, now a city councilman and mayoral candidate, was a frequent target of Dunphy’s criticism and reportedly was not a fan. At one point, a number of aides unsuccessfully sought the writer’s identity. Current Police Chief Bratton, by contrast, likes what he’s read of Dunphy’s work.
“I wish he’d come forward and identify himself, so I could throw him into my press office,” he said Tuesday. Bratton called Dunphy’s work “extraordinarily thoughtful” and praised the “research, writing and perspective” displayed in the column on Miller’s arrest.
“My sense is that Dunphy reflects in a more articulate and thoughtful way the sentiments of the average L.A. cop,” said Bratton. “Our average officer is a person trying to do good in neighborhoods that, unfortunately, are among the most dangerous in America for cops. They see a lot of bloodshed, they feel a lot of grief. Then, something like this incident happens and the people in those neighborhoods seem to turn on them and their leaders -- people like me and Mayor Hahn, who are supposed to protect cops -- take a stand that puts them in a quandary.
“Dunphy captures this from the cop’s side and articulates their feelings in a way the average cop can’t,” Bratton said.
For his part, Dunphy -- with whom this writer had met and lunched -- is a Bratton fan. “I recently heard someone say that the essence of scholarship is comparison,” the columnist said. “So I have to judge Bratton against his predecessors. Needless to say, he’s head and shoulders above Parks, both as an administrator and as a leader. We needn’t even discuss Willie Williams. Daryl Gates, of course, was beloved by his cops but utterly without political instincts, and it was that lack that took us down the long, rutted road.
“Bratton has all the political skills Gates lacked, and this has made a huge difference in the way this current drama has played out. Note that only about 50 people showed up at the protest in front of 77th Street Station the other day. For all the caterwauling by the usual suspects, most people can see the distinction between what happened last week and Rodney King.”
According to Dunphy, “the cops on the street are doing their best to take it in stride, just as we do every time something like this happens. It’s impossible to make people understand this as they watch the tape in their living rooms, but if you’ve just been in a half-hour pursuit, and if you work in an area where cops are shot at with alarming regularity, your perspective changes. I have a whole collection of little black mourning bands in my locker. Many of these were for cops who didn’t realize they were in danger until it was too late.”
A sense of urgency
Dunphy’s latest column, posted Tuesday, is an appraisal of a new book, “Into the Kill Zone” by criminologist David Klinger, another former LAPD officer. Like many of the writer’s National Review pieces, it begins with a vivid personal recollection worth quoting at length, because it captures the urgent clarity of Dunphy’s style:
“I was one of about 10 cops serving a search warrant on a ‘rock house,’ a place where crack cocaine was sold. The door to the apartment was on a small, upstairs landing, so the cops working the entry tools were especially vulnerable. Crouching on the top step, I covered the windows as the hook-and-ram team peeled back the exterior metal door and slammed open the interior wooden one.
“I was the first man through the door, passing from bright sunlight into the gloom and fetid odor so typical of such places. There was movement all around, with the rest of my squad pushing through the doorway behind me and the dope dealers diving for the floor at our command. But there was one guy -- there’s always one guy -- who stood up and ran toward the back of the apartment. Experience told me he was most likely heading to the bathroom to flush the dope down the toilet. I was right on his heels down the hallway, and when he made a left turn I could see from the tiled wall he had indeed entered a bathroom. All I had to do was keep him away from the toilet, or, as was sometimes the case, fish out the pieces of cocaine before they -- and our case -- went down the drain.
“Things quickly got more complicated. As I turned into the bathroom the guy I had chased was facing the toilet, but his right hand was on the counter near the sink, and only an inch or so away from that hand was a Smith & Wesson .45 caliber pistol. I had the merest fraction of a second to decide if this guy was going for the gun or merely trying to flush the dope. I was moving so quickly that my momentum carried me into the bathroom, and while holding my gun back and out of the dealer’s reach I clocked him with my free hand and sent him flying backwards into the bathtub. Things turned out as well as could be expected for both of us that day: He went off to jail and I went home .... “
This is strong stuff, told with authority by a voice that deserves a hearing in the city’s conversation with itself.