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Jewish World ReviewSept. 3, 1999/22 Elul , 5759

Larry Elder

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Can a good cop have a bad mouth? -- DOES A BAD-MOUTHED cop, by definition, exercise bad judgment?

Last December 1998, in Riverside, California, a 19-year-old black woman, Tyisha Miller, sat in an apparent coma with a gun on her lap, in a locked car with the motor running. Her companions called 911, and four police officers arrived, three white and one Hispanic. The woman appeared to be in medical distress. Apparently time was of the essence. The cops tried yelling at her, banging on the window, and shining a flashlight. No response. One cop shattered a window in an attempt to remove the gun, so that Miller could receive medical help. But something happened. Either she moved or one or more cops thought she moved, and the police opened fire, shooting at her nearly two dozen times, striking her twelve times. She died.

Some witnesses claim the officers seemed jubilant after the shooting, high-fiving each other, and making racially insensitive remarks. After an investigation, the Riverside Police Department fired the four officers, presumably, at least in part, because of post-shooting remarks and behavior. The shooting remains under investigation by the U.S. Attorney's office, the California State Attorney General's office, and the County Grand Jury.

The remarks allegedly made by the officers included referring to the victim as a "bitch," and stating that the growing gathering of despondent blacks at the scene reminded one of a "Kwanzaa" festival. These remarks, according to some "black activists," prove that the cops acted unlawfully.

But punishing the officers for crass remarks does not answer the central question: Did the cops exercise defensible judgment when they shot the 19-year-old black woman? Did the cops act in a "racist" manner because their language betrays a "devaluing" of the life of a black woman?

How many of us know cops? How many of us appreciate the stress they operate under, the second-guessing, the armchair quarterbacking from some who watch too many episodes of "NYPD Blue"? How many of us could get up in the morning, not knowing whether we would return alive, having spent a day willing to take a bullet for somebody we don't even know? Police report higher than average rates of divorce, alcoholism, and stress. At any given time, a cop's radio could boom, "officer down." Ever heard of "accountant down," or "hotel concierge down"?

Cops are not choirboys. Pick up any Joseph Wambaugh novel. Cop talk reeks of swagger, denunciations, insensitivity, incivility, and profanity. Cops' vocabulary include a demeaning term for every race, religion, ethnicity, and place of origin, as well as for each gender. Cops use a general, one-size-fits-all term for a "suspect." It begins with "a" and ends with "hole."

Does the Riverside cops' alleged use of racially insensitive remarks mean, in and of itself, that the young black woman's rights were denied? Consider the case of Mark Fuhrman, vilified by the O.J. Simpson "dream team" for racism. On tape, in a discussion with a screenwriter, Fuhrman uses the term "nigger" numerous times, and talks about brutality against black suspects. The Los Angeles Times, however, interviewed minorities with whom Fuhrman worked. The Times found little to support "dream team" lawyer Johnnie Cochran's comparison of Fuhrman to Hitler.

The Times said, "Sergeant Ed Palmer, an African-American who first met Fuhrman at the West Los Angeles station (the previous) year, said: 'I am as shocked as anybody ... If Mark were a racist and especially as big a racist as he sounded on the tapes, I would have no trouble telling him he was the scum of the earth. But I really can't.'" Sergeant Roberto Alaniz, a Hispanic whom Fuhrman even requested as a partner, echoed Palmer's sentiments, "The Mark Fuhrman I know ... is not a racist."

Case closed? Of course not. But let's avoid the "rush to judgment" based solely on the cops' alleged offensive remarks.

Did Jesse Jackson's use of the terms "Hymie" and "Hymie-town" disqualify him as a civil rights leader? President Richard Nixon demeaned, among other people, Jews on the famous Watergate tapes. Yet, Nixon appointed the first Jewish secretary of state, with Jews serving as Nixon's top legal advisor and speechwriter. President Harry Truman once referred to New York as "Kike-town," yet worked tirelessly to help establish the State of Israel.

This does not excuse racist language by a public servant, especially one with a gun and a badge. Cops using demeaning language must be disciplined. Remember, cops serve the public, and people properly demand a minimal level of respect and civility. Racist cops assuredly exist. And racist cops who perform brutally and unjustly must be rooted out. But we pick cops from our population, and bad seeds can and do get through.

Let's focus on the bottom line. When people call 911, they first want prompt, professional, and skillful attention. Crusty language and all.

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©1999, Creators Syndicate