One bad day

HEATHER MAC DONALD is a Manhattan Institute fellow and the author of "Are Cops Racist?"

DIE-HARD CRITICS of the Los Angeles Police Department have seized on the MacArthur Park debacle to dredge up outdated stereotypes about the department. To be sure, the conduct of some Metropolitan Division officers toward members of the media and demonstrators May 1 has left a shameful mark on the department, one that requires -- and is receiving -- immediate analysis and correction. But to turn that aberrant episode into the symbol of today’s LAPD, as its detractors have done, displays gross ignorance.

A May 5 column by The Times’ media reporter, Tim Rutten, is emblematic of the anti-LAPD rhetoric circulating among activists and professional cop critics since the park incident. He claimed that the “LAPD’s recourse to brutality and wanton abuse of civil liberties ... is an old and obviously still entrenched” problem. Actually, the misconduct at MacArthur Park is not entrenched. Instead, what happened there represented an unusual collapse of supervision, lousy tactics and the unique challenges of crowd control, which police organizations infrequently train for and whose group demands run counter to the individualized nature of conventional policing. The Metropolitan Division platoon detailed to the park had not been trained in crowd work for at least a year.

If the Parker-era centurion mentality has an afterlife, it would be in the elite Metropolitan Division, whose officers pride themselves on their history and exacting admissions standards. Created in 1933, Metro serves as a specialized force for such crisis situations as the 1997 North Hollywood bank robbery. While it also backs up street-crime fighters, it has little continuing contact with the public. A top LAPD commander explained the park incident to me this way: The problem began when a “handful of one-dimensional Metro cops put on their Darth Vader masks and helmets and became a system serving a system, not people serving people. They could not transition between being soldier-warriors and being public servants.” Once one or two officers violated policy, their managers should have intervened immediately so that their conduct didn’t become contagious. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.


But whatever the challenges of integrating the Metro Division’s paramilitary ethic into the department’s community orientation, the May Day breakdown represents neither the LAPD as a whole nor the typical performance of the division. Critics from the National Lawyers Guild and the American Civil Liberties Union repeatedly invoke the department’s forceful response to anarchist violence at the 2000 Democratic National Convention to buttress their claim that it possesses a culture of aggression. But since August 2000, the department has overseen hundreds of demonstrations -- some of which turned violent -- without incident. And carefully omitted from the criticisms of the policing at the Democratic convention are the uniformly high marks that city officials and convention organizers gave the department.

The Rampart corruption scandal is another favorite way station for critics who contend that the department is endemically corrupt and brutal, especially toward immigrants. Yet, according to many stories in The Times, some of the strongest support for the police in the city at the time of Rampart came precisely from those neighborhoods where allegedly “victimized” immigrants were concentrated.

Indeed, the LAPD could not accommodate immigrants more insistently. The cherished villain of department bashers, Daryl F. Gates, created Special Order 40, which prohibits police officers from stopping a person to inquire about his or her immigration status. The regulation has resulted in a virtual cordon sanitaire between the LAPD and federal immigration authorities. The department’s unflagging attention to crime in MacArthur Park has allowed thousands of poor Latino families to reclaim that neighborhood.

The Rampart abuse was perpetrated by a couple of bad cops in one division who had been left wholly without oversight. No one has ever found evidence that similar crimes were happening elsewhere in the department. Relentless sting efforts against officers by the LAPD’s anti-corruption unit since then have yielded negligible results.

Finally, there is the Rodney King beating, 16 years old but as fresh for LAPD opponents as if it happened yesterday. The majority of today’s officers were in high school when it happened, and the command staff has almost completely turned over, but no matter. For critics, the videotape of the beating shows the nature of policing in this city. Well, no.

According to journalist Lou Cannon’s definitive analysis in “Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD,” the videotape, which was repeatedly played on local television, was highly misleading. It had been edited to omit crucial footage and failed to provide either the history of the car chase that ended in the beating or King’s behavior before the tape began. Nor could it point to the poor training that had left officers like Laurence Powell, one of four tried in the case and one of two convicted on federal charges of violating King’s civil rights, with inadequate skills to respond to a violent suspect.


The LAPD’s usual scourges should get out and see some real policing. They should talk to officers and educate themselves about the organization’s constant efforts to partner with the community in fighting crime. The transparency and accountability that Chief William J. Bratton introduced after he took over in 2002 have made the department a national model. Crime reporters in Los Angeles don’t know how good they’ve got it with a department that actually returns phone calls and opens its doors to the media.

However deplorable the May Day episode, it has been blown way out of proportion, in part by people with a financial interest in fanning passions over the incident. Even without the incessant media coverage of that evening’s events, there is no question that the department would have reacted as strongly to prevent a reoccurrence. The salient feature of the MacArthur Park breakdown was not its routine nature but rather its rarity.