Tuesday, June 09, 2009

And we, like sheep …

After leading police on a long chase near the same Slauson Cutoff made famous by Johnny Carson (and jazz trombone virtuoso Bill Watrous), Richard Rodriguez was obviously going to jail. At the end of a vehicular pursuit that endangered the lives and property of several people, Rodriguez – an accused street gang member – side-swiped a parked car before coming to a stop near a small cluster of buildings. The driver bolted from the car and a brief foot chase began.

Surprisingly fleet and agile, Rodriguez sprinted a quarter-mile or so before cornering himself in a fenced backyard. Taking a deep breath, and being familiar with the drill, Rodriguez flattened himself on the ground, arms outstretched, palms down, waiting for the police to arrive.

First on the scene, several seconds later, was George Fierro, a 15-year veteran El Monte, California police officer who, seeing the prone and unresisting suspect flat on the ground, nonetheless hauled off and kicked him full in the face. Another officer quickly joined Fierro, giving Rodriguez a couple of shots with what appeared to be a small club as the two cops handcuffed the suspect. With Rodriguez in shackles, Fierro waddled over to a nearby K-9 officer to indulge in a triumphant high-five.

The real scandal here, insists retired LA Sheriff's Department investigator Dean Scoville, was not the unnecessary use of physical force by Fierro, but rather the "conspiracy" he discerns on the part of "the f___ing news media that's putting the boot to our collective heads because of it."

Officer Fierro's only offense, Scoville sneered in the pages of Police magazine, is "Working in the wrong era." "There was a time when post pursuit ass-kickings were obligatory," Scoville writes wistfully. "Cops knew it, suspects knew it, and there are enough old timers on both sides of the fence that will verify the assertion when I say that what this officer did was NOTHING compared to what would have happened in another place and time.... I'm nostalgic for the days when the pursued feared the judicial system if for nothing but the inevitable ass-kicking and street justice."

Society is no safer now that police have supposedly abandoned those wise old ways, insists Scoville; instead, we've empowered the criminal element and enhanced the peril faced by the law-abiding.

There are two factual problems with that analysis. Scoville's first error – as can be amply documented, thanks to the near-ubiquity of cell phones and the blessing of on-line file-sharing sites – is to claim that the practice of "street justice" by police officers has gone the way of the vinyl LP; in fact, it may be more widespread today than in any previous era. What’s wrong with this picture? If you answered, "Police are supposed to be peace officers and not `troops’ acting as an army of occupation," you’re right.

The second problem with Scoville's assessment is this: violent crime by private-sector criminals is less of a threat now than it has been in quite a while. Note carefully the qualifying phrase "private sector criminals"; we'll return to that distinction in a second.

Lt. Col. David Grossman, a West Point instructor and retired Army Ranger who provides combat instruction for police officers nation-wide (put a bookmark by that critical thought as well), points out that while we "may be living in the most violent times in history ... violence is still remarkably rare."

True, an estimated two million Americans are victims of violent crimes each year, but with a population of some 300 million Americans "the odds of being a victim of violent crime is considerably less than one in a hundred on any given year," Grossman observes. "Furthermore, since many violent crimes are committed by repeat offenders, the actual number of violent citizens is considerably less than two million."

From this we see that violent crime, while a problem of considerable magnitude, is hardly an omnipresent threat. Yet many commentators, including Grossman himself, treat this containable social problem as if it were a relentless onslaught carried out by a huge, well-organized enemy, and insist on examining it in military terms. The police, according to Grossman, are "Sheepdogs," people specially endowed by God, or evolution, or something, with "the gift of aggression." The rest of us are mere "sheep" who "live in denial ... [not wanting to acknowledge] that there is evil in the world."

Oh, but let not your pitiful ovine heart be troubled; Grossman soothingly assures the rest of us that Sheepdogs "would no more misuse this gift [of aggression] than a doctor would misuse his healing arts," even though Sheepdogs understandably "yearn for the opportunity to use their gift to help others."

From this perspective, when the Sheepdogs get a little rough with their charges – say, body-slamming a woman face-first into a restaurant floor, leaving an innocent young man in a coma after body-checking him head-first into a wall, or putting a 12-year-old girl skateboarder in a chokehold – this isn't abuse; it's an outgrowth of their irrepressible "yearning for an honest battle." Ah.

As mentioned earlier, Grossman has been heavily engaged in providing combat instruction to police officers across the country, particularly since 9-11. That fact offers a partial answer to a question increasingly on the lips of Americans unsettled by the ever-growing tide of police abuse: Why do police increasingly behave like an occupying army, rather than civilian peace officers?

Grossman has done as much as anybody to infect police officers with the conceit that they are a warrior caste, apart from and – by virtue of their capacity to inflict violence – superior to the "sheep" they supervise. That conceit was on display in a recent Police magazine essay by trumpeted retired SWAT officer Robert O'Brien, who described police as "society's sheepdogs, [who] willingly and selflessly protect your flock – with your lives if necessary.... You are our nation's domestic warriors and heroes."

O'Brien's psalm of self-praise ventures into frankly fascist territory when he describes the fraternity of armed tax-consumers as "a thin blue line [that] strengthens into a solid steel band of brothers" in the face of danger and adversity. Now, I admit that there have been exceptional cases in which police have risked life, limb, and health in genuinely heroic service to innocent people – just as there are good and conscientious people employed in the hopelessly corrupt and collectivist public school system. There are some remarkable individuals in police work who perform their duties with a commendable combination of boldness and self-restraint, and then are killed in the line of duty at a tragically early age.

The late Officer Randal Simmons of the LAPD – ironically enough, a SWAT commander – appears to have been such a genuinely exceptional individual. Simmons was killed in a standoff with an armed, violent criminal who had killed two members of his own family. He was, signficantly, the first LA SWAT operator to be killed in the line of duty since the unit was formed forty years earlier. Talk about "Old School": Officer Simmons once ended a stand-off with a criminal suspect by testifying to him about Jesus. Obviously, he was not someone eager to blow "perps" to hell, unlike too many of the Sheepdogs praised by Grossman and O'Brien.

Simmons's apparent reluctance to use unnecessary force was the most important of several traits that set him apart from the rising crop of police officers. Too often, the "solid steel band of brothers" extolled by O'Brien displays its determined solidarity by defending each other against accountability, rather than intervening to protect the innocent from criminal violence. For too many, "officer safety" is the prime directive, whether the situation at hand is a Columbine-style shooting rampage or an inquiry into an act of criminal abuse by a fellow officer.

Consider the former example, the murder rampage at Columbine, during which heavily armed police and sheriff's deputies valiantly arrested fleeing teenagers while the shooters gunned down victims without opposition.

Here's Grossman's view of that episode: "The students, the victims, at Columbine High School were big, tough high school students, and under ordinary circumstances they would not have had the time of day for a police officer..... When the school was under attack, however, and SWAT teams were clearing rooms and hallways, the officers had to physically peel those clinging, sobbing kids off of them. This is how the little lambs feel about the sheepdog when the wolf is at the door."

What the "sheep" didn't know at the time was that the "wolves" were already dead at their own hands, a development not brought about in any way by the actions of the "sheepdogs." The only contribution made by the "warriors" at Columbine was to plant the flag after the battle was over, and the enemy had moved on.

Of course, the Sheepdogs have been eager to capitalize on the actions of the Wolves at Columbine and elsewhere, to enhance their warrior cred. This underscores a cynical symbiosis between the sheepdogs and the wolves: The former need the latter, or at least the threat of the latter, in order to define themselves and justify their growing presence and influence in society.

As noted above, the "private" criminal element of American society, by Grossman's estimate, amounts to "considerably less than two million." As of 2005, the total population of state and local American police personnel was just under a half-million. (That figure obviously doesn't include the ever-expanding number of federal law enforcement personnel.) How many of the "sheepdogs" are actually latent Wolves, lacking only the right set of circumstances for their lethal lupine nature to assert itself?

When Officer Fierro kicked an unresisting suspect in the head, was he acting as a Sheepdog "yearning for a righteous battle," or as a Wolf exploiting an opportunity? In his particular case, there's evidence to believe that Fierro is the latter. When he's not patrolling the mean streets of El Monte, Officer Fierro brings in the bucks as owner of Torcido clothing, a specialty shop catering to gang-bangers and ex-convicts. "Torcido" (Spanish for "torqued" or "twisted") is Chicano slang for being imprisoned. Among the products offered by Fierro's company is a t-shirt bearing the inscription "186.22," with a bullet for the decimal point. The number refers to the penal code section dealing with gang crimes.

Local newspaper columnist Frank Girardot points out that Officer Fierro's company "caters to gang members and glorifies the Mexican Mafia." Girardot quotes LAPD Detective David Espinoza: "I understand the gangs really love this cop. I understand the clothing has hiding places for contraband, guns and dope. Things that can hurt our real cops on the street." (Note well that even here the first priority is "officer safety.")

When Fierro kicked Rodriguez in the face, was he guilty of abusing a customer, as well as police brutality? It's tempting to imagine him sharing lunch or hoisting an after-work beer with some of the same street criminals he pursues while on the clock. There's certainly something about his situation that gives off an odor reminiscent of the relationship depicted in Chuck Jones's classic "Ralph and Sam" cartoons.

Fierro's case resonates with a familiar cinematic cliche, that of the "supercop" with friends on "both sides of the law." Much celebrated in film and television, this affinity actually exists, according to a study published ten years ago in the Journal of Police a Criminal Psychology. The problem, according to that study, is that this demonstrates the prevalence of a certain type of sociopathic personality in both crime and law enforcement, since "the characteristics of `supercops' [are] similar and perhaps even interchangeable with those of habitual criminals." Among the salient traits of both groups are "a disposition toward control, aggressiveness, vigilance, rebelliousness, high energy level ... high self-esteem, feelings of uniqueness ... and a tendency to avoid blame."

Catherine Griffin and Jim Ruiz, authors of the study, point out that police work tends to select for potential and latent sociopathic personalities, since it "offers unlimited opportunities for corruption and deceit" coupled with a very tribal professional culture. "The extent to which police officers may abuse their authority seems limitless as does the extent fellow officers will go to protect each other," they observe. "The loyalty and `brotherhood' of the police that appeals to so many has caused many officers to neglect their primary duty to protect and to serve."

The problem is that many, perhaps most, of those employed in law enforcement do not see "protecting and serving" as their primary duty, but rather as one incidental to their fraternal responsibilities to each other and their obligations to the state that employs them. Wherever the interests of the two groups collide, we can expect the Sheepdogs to look out for each other at the expense of the Sheep. It's worth remembering that canines and lupines, as distant relatives, are both potential threats to the flock.

It's also worth remembering that the Regime ruling us coddles wolves, both the literal predator and their human equivalent. Sheep, on the other hand, are suitable only to be herded, sheared, and butchered – and one purpose of Sheepdogs, after all, is to keep the flock together on the way to the slaughterhouse.

One of the pleasant side-effects of the ongoing depression, ironically, is a wave of law enforcement cut-backs by revenue-starved municipalities. And this trend has helped fuel a large and continuing increase in gun purchases by Americans. This is all to the good, although we need much more of it to happen very quickly. We desperately need a radical thinning of the ranks of state-employed Sheepdogs, and for Americans by the tens of millions to discover their inner wolves.

Original report here

(And don't forget your ration of Wicked Thoughts for today)

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