EVERY once in a while, something more than Bill Bratton’s accent reminds you that he’s not from around here.
Thursday, the Los Angeles police chief called his officers’ attack on legal demonstrators and working journalists at an immigrants’ rights rally in MacArthur Park this week the “worst incident of this type I have ever encountered in 37 years” of policing.
Well chief, what can those of us who have spent about the same amount of time covering the LAPD say, except: Welcome to the show. When it comes to pointless brutality and a brazen disregard for constitutionally guaranteed rights -- like freedom of speech and assembly -- your department always has thrown major league fastballs. (When it comes to working the political process to escape the consequences of their actions, your predecessors always have tossed a pretty good curveball, too.)
It’s tempting, in fact, to say that, in a world of flux and chaotic change, it’s deeply comforting to know that some things can be relied upon -- the sun will rise in the East every morning, the swallows will come back to Capistrano every March and, every few years, the LAPD will stage another of these police riots. Hands will be wrung, reports will be issued, yawns will be stifled -- and nothing of any consequence will change between now and the next time.
It’s tempting, but cheap and not quite right.
This time around, some things are crucially different, and the real question is whether the city’s news media no less than its political institutions will make something of that fact.
Although the problem of LAPD’s recourse to brutality and wanton abuse of civil liberties -- particularly when it comes to political protest -- is an old and obviously still entrenched one, the news coverage of this incident was very different in kind and degree. It was different not only because of the new video and Internet technologies, but also because of the emergence of a vigorous local Spanish-language media rooted among the people who were victimized Tuesday by these abusive cops.
Equally important, the official LAPD response was different because this police chief -- the most media savvy law enforcement leader since the young J. Edgar Hoover -- understands just how fundamentally this new era has changed things. Wednesday, Bratton told the media corps, seven of whose members were injured by the police, that “the treatment you received from some Los Angeles police officers ... we can’t tolerate and won’t tolerate.” Thursday, he pointed with particular concern to the treatment of Telemundo anchor Pedro Sevcec, who was broadcasting from under a canopy when he and his cameramen were struck by rampaging cops, knocked to the ground and menaced with weapons. As Bratton described it: “Here you have a tent clearly [for the] news media.” Sevcec was wearing “a suit and tie and there is clearly cameras ... and the knocking over of cameras in a tent -- that behavior is not under any circumstances justified.”
Of course, Bratton wants a second term as chief, but he also understands that this new media environment makes a partnership between police and public not simply ethically desirable, but also politically indispensable. Even if he believed in nothing but self-preservation, that reality would push Chief William J. Bratton to press for a full accounting of what happened in MacArthur Park this week and toward drawing some hard conclusions about his department from what he learns.
That won’t happen, though, if the news media -- in both the English and Spanish languages -- don’t keep their attention focused on this event. Their challenge is to summon the will to keep the focus on the four “investigations” into the incident now underway and to demand that sensible answers about what really occurred be delivered in a reasonable amount of time. If that doesn’t happen, we’ll simply have had a week’s worth of visually stimulating TV and momentarily cathartic outrage, followed by a lot of civic blather as usual.
When it comes to the long struggle against police abuse in Los Angeles -- a struggle deeply entwined with the city’s history and key to its social conscience -- a new day dawned when Rodney King’s beating was videotaped. Those stark images, played over and over on local television, simply made the long evasion about the real nature of policing in this city momentarily impossible. Something equally momentous happened this week: The images from MacArthur Park came from Fox 11 and from Telemundo, as well as from the cellphones of demonstrators. They went up not only on regularly scheduled newscasts, but also on the Web, where frequently visited local news sites, such as laobserved.com, provided convenient links.
Eyewitness reports came not only from L.A. Times and local English- and Spanish-language TV reporters but from bloggers and noncommercial public radio correspondents, including KPCC’s Patricia Nazario, who was among the injured. Taken together -- and frequently linked in the way new media allows -- these accounts verbally and visually documented this police riot in a way none of its predecessors ever was.
A city whose conscience can remain unafflicted by these easily available reports and images of armored police officers firing so-called “nonlethal” rounds into a crowd containing women, children and elderly people has no conscience to afflict. A city whose civic soul can remain untroubled by the fact that those people were peacefully exercising their legal -- indeed, municipally “permitted” -- right to speak freely about their grievances and to petition for their redress has no soul to trouble.
Our news media excel at outrage, but they too frequently have the attention span of a fruit fly. The federal consent decree under which the LAPD now operates was imposed because the local news media --and, particularly, the Los Angeles Times -- maintained a relentless focus on what the Rampart scandal told us about the police department’s conduct, especially its callous victimization of an immigrant community too cowed to protest and deeply skeptical that it would be heard if it did.
Now, the city’s English-language news media need to shake off their habitual lethargy and the Spanish-speaking media their too-pervasive frivolity to give the investigations into the MacArthur Park police riot the attention they demand. In the past, LAPD had made a practice of stringing out these inquiries endlessly, of enmeshing them in conveniently overlapping complexities masquerading as due process.
Your average LAPD investigation of one of its own scandals makes Jarndyce versus Jarndyce look like a rush to judgment.
By the time the probe sputters to the usual ambiguous and desultory conclusion, all the wounds have scarred over, all the outrage has burned itself out and the status quo has survived to strangle another opportunity for change in its cradle.
If that happens again, the people of Los Angeles should blame not simply LAPD and their city government, but also their news media.