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Jewish World Review May 21, 2000/ 21 Iyar, 5760

Larry Elder

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Police scandal: Overreaction equals anarchy -- "THEY THAT CAN GIVE UP essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." Ben Franklin's statement remains true today. But the absence of rule of law produces anarchy.

In the most far-reaching corruption scandal in its history, the Los Angeles Police Department -- governed by its second consecutive black chief -- stands accused of evidence planting, falsifying police reports, unlawful arrests, illegal shootings, and perjury. So far, over 70 officers, most assigned to anti-gang units, have been arrested, suspended or forced to resign. The Feds threaten a "change-or-else" takeover.

A takeover? A bunch of New York cops either participated in, or looked the other way, when NYPD officers broomstick-sodomized an immigrant. No federal takeover. In Los Angeles, three-quarters of public school kids fail to read and write at grade level. No federal takeover. And don't get me started on city council, or the county supervisors, who spent unwisely and inefficiently, and continue to do so.

The LAPD scandal started when a cop assigned to CRASH -- Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums -- got busted lifting cocaine from the evidence room. In exchange for a more lenient sentence, Hispanic Officer Rafael Perez started singing about alleged instances of police corruption.

The LAPD blames the district attorney's office for failing to notify the department of suspicions about Officer Perez' credibility. The LA County DA -- of Mexican ancestry -- says, "No, don't blame us because you negligently hired and failed to screen out bad cops."

(Famed black criminal defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran spent a few years in the DA's office. Part of his duties included investigating bad cops. Or did you already know that?)

Some blame the mayor, a moderate who opposed the initiative to end racial preferences. Some blame the police commission -- formerly headed by a black woman -- for failing to exercise greater oversight. Some point to City Council, a chamber with both black and Hispanic members. Others accuse the media of indifference about police brutality, although the city's major newspaper remains liberal and almost pathologically sympathetic towards minorities.

While playing the blame game, most overlook the three biggest factors in the scandal.

First, affirmative action, which is why I emphasized the ethnicity of many involved. Like many police departments, the LAPD, because of past discrimination, remains under a court consent decree. The order mandates "diversity" in hiring, encouraging the recruitment of minorities and women. So, in short order, the LAPD added nearly 2,000 new officers.

With the influx of so many new recruits, supervisors found themselves spending less time monitoring the new officers and more time absorbing and managing rampant expansion.

Second, gang-related crime. Los Angeles County has nearly 1,300 gangs, with an estimated 160,000 gang members. In 1992 the LAPD Rampart division -- the unit at the center of the controversy -- saw nearly 150 murders. But by 1997, because of police anti-gang measures, the figure fell to 52.

Neighborhood residents cheered.

This does not, of course, justify unlawful police conduct. But caution dictates that while rooting out the bad cops, we do not overreact, leaving crime-concerned inner-city residents vulnerable. Under pressure, the LAPD shut down the CRASH anti-gang unit. The result? In the last week alone, Los Angeles experienced five gang-related shootings. Some LAPD officers say that gang-related crime has increased over 50 percent since the beginning of the scandal. Gangbangers see a defanged, demoralized, and increasingly passive police department. One officer said, "There's a climate of fear -- fear that if you do your job, you're going to get into trouble. In 32 years, I've never seen morale this low. I've never seen so many people in so many operations so unhappy." Another LAPD officer put it, "It's going to be a long, hot summer."

The third factor is perhaps the most important -- our expectations. Cops get hired out of our flawed, human population. The process screens out numerous applicants for every one who makes it through. Still, things go wrong, break down, fail to work, or people fail to communicate. Because of low pay compared to the private sector, many talented people never go into law enforcement, especially given its constraints and comparatively sluggish upward mobility.

Planes crash. People die in car accidents. From time to time, cops act illegally, corruptly, brutally. By all means, we must stay vigilant, and weed them out.

But let's have perspective. Cops live real lives. They make mistakes. They get grumpy, surly, and sometimes lax. They sometimes get ticked -- just like the rest of us. Yeah, I know the guys on "Adam 12" never made a mistake, and Joe Friday always kept his cool. Too bad the crooks don't spend all their time watching television, instead of committing crimes. You know, like in real life.

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© 2000, Creators Syndicate