The Times Quotes Firebrands and Convicts the City’s Cops

Jack Dunphy is a pseudonym for a Los Angeles police officer who writes for the National Review Online.

I grew up reading the Los Angeles Times, but not long ago I canceled the subscription I had held for nearly 30 years. Though I graduated from college a proud liberal, my political views have moved steadily rightward as I’ve grown older, and I came to find my opinions diverging more and more sharply from those on The Times’ editorial pages.

But I expect to disagree with the editorials in any of the major dailies, a few of which I regularly read online. It is when I find liberal bias on the news pages that I am most disappointed, and nowhere has such bias been more evident in The Times over the years than in its coverage of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Police shooting —An “Outside the Tent” column in last Sunday’s Opinion, about The Times’ coverage of the police shooting of 13-year-old Devin Brown, stated that The Times’ first news report of the incident did not mention until the last paragraph that the car Brown was driving collided with an LAPD car, and that it did not describe the damage. The 10th paragraph of the 16-paragraph story described the police car as “badly dented and scratched, apparently from the impact of the stolen car.”

As an LAPD officer, I’m certainly aware that, when incidents such as the Devin Brown shooting occur, there is a great demand for large-scale coverage from the city’s only major newspaper. But too often that coverage is misguided, muddying the truth and causing much more societal harm than good. Like its reportage on the Rodney King trial, the Margaret Mitchell shooting and other police-related controversies over the years, The Times’ coverage of the Brown shooting seems designed to raise expectations that the involved officer, Steve Garcia, will be punished or even imprisoned for his actions that morning.

The first sentence of The Times’ first story on the shooting, described Brown as “unarmed.” This is true in the sense that Brown did not have a gun, but if he was in fact attempting to run Garcia down, as Garcia has reportedly offered as his rationale for firing, then Brown was armed with quite a weapon indeed. And not until the final paragraph does the story mention that Brown’s car collided with the police car. The extensive damage to the police car was not described.

Other details of the coverage also tilt sympathy away from the police.

In a Feb. 9 story about the shooting, a minister was quoted describing Brown as an “honor student.” The story was accompanied by a picture of a cherubic Brown (taken years earlier, apparently) in the cap and gown of a graduation ceremony. This only added to the already growing perception that an innocent child had been gunned down without cause. Brown’s foundering academic record was more accurately described in a story the following day, perhaps too late to influence the opinions already formed.

A Feb. 11 story on the shooting quoted Bob Baker, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents rank-and-file officers. Baker spoke of a case in San Diego in which a defendant recently pleaded guilty to killing a San Diego police officer by running him down with a stolen truck. Though Baker’s quote helped to provide some context to Garcia’s actions in the Brown shooting, I would have hoped to see a fuller account of this San Diego case.

In fact, if The Times were interested in presenting a balanced picture of the Brown shooting, it might run a story about the 21 police officers who were deliberately struck by cars and killed in the United States in the last five years.

Then there is The Times’ dubious selection of sources on this tinderbox topic. As a writer, I can understand the desire to pepper a story with colorful quotes, but must The Times be so accommodating to the rants of Rep. Maxine Waters? Recall that it was Waters who led the effort to excuse the rioters who in 1992 put much of Los Angeles to the torch. In the current controversy she is being no less provocative.

The Times quoted Waters as urging the community to “demand justice and become even more creative in ways to shame the establishment for tolerating this kind of abuse in our city.” If I ever read that a Times reporter had called Waters to account for these or any of her inflammatory remarks, I might even consider subscribing again.

In 1992, The Times’ then-media critic, David Shaw, reported that one cause of what came to be known as the Rodney King riots was the public’s expectation that the four officers involved in King’s arrest would be convicted. This expectation, Shaw said, may have been raised because Los Angeles media outlets, including The Times, tended to dismiss or underreport those details that favored the officers’ defense.

When the story of the Devin Brown shooting is finally concluded, will The Times have made the same mistake? If the city again goes up in flames, will The Times shoulder any of the blame?