The police are only doing our bidding

Ira Socol

May 12, 1992|By Ira Socol

TO BE surprised by the verdict in Los Angeles, one has to be completely ignorant of the American public's relationship with its urban police forces.

After Rodney King was beaten last spring, there were urgent calls for an overhaul of police training and widespread denunciation of the city's "occupying army."

But this was a response to symptoms, not causes.

Though many police departments across the country have learned to respect and understand citizens and communities, the force run by Chief Daryl Gates more truly mirrors what Americans expect of big-city cops.

Angelenos have known for 30 years what kind of department Chief Gates has been running.

Some forces, including New York's, have training programs that try to battle the Hollywood image of the cop-assassin -- the principal role model for many young officers.

But in Los Angeles and other places most citizens have been happy in the knowledge that the urban enemy is afraid of the warriors in blue.

Americans insist on "control" of street crime.

Politicians at every level echo that call and no one really protests. Not the media, not civic leaders, not even the American Civil Liberties Union.

We send our police out to fight a war on drugs and a war on crime.

We send them far away from our comfortable neighborhoods, to places we don't understand, to preserve our lives and lifestyle.

We send them out poorly equipped and trained for "combat" and with no political support for efforts to win the hearts and minds of the inner-city population.

We send out these cops without caring at all about the people of the areas we send them to.

We want the threat to disappear and we expect victory no matter what.

In New York and other cities cops are trained to pull their partners away from situations where tempers have flared.

The cops who beat Rodney King just watched one another.

Unlike many urban police departments where supervisors are trained to enforce what is called community-service policing, the L.A. bosses compare their city to Vietnam.

Unlike Philadelphia or Chicago, where an out-of-control incident would be a huge embarrassment, the four L.A. cops were so confident of official approval that they joked about it on the radio.

Only when the collateral damage ends up on television do we worry. Then our conscience takes over and we are stunned and shocked.

Like Vietnam, we have sent people to do our dirty work, but, please, don't let any of the blood splatter on us.

While America watches TV cops blow criminals away, big-city cops spend their time with victims.

The enemy strikes and disappears and cops clean up the aftermath.

Do the police become racist? Certainly. Do they become violent? It happens.

But cops may be among the few Americans who really know whose war this is and what Americans want them to do.

They understand the desperate struggle between the vast majority of law-abiding minority residents and the growing angry underclass.

They know that at times like this society will see every urban cop as a violent racist, just as American soldiers in Vietnam were portrayed as baby killers.

The acquittal in the King case was assured when the trial was moved to the exurbs, where the residents are most frightened of the "urban beast."

The verdict is an honest appraisal of how Americans feel about the role of cops and about our inner cities.

Can the Los Angeles Police Department's attitude be improved? No doubt.

Could different training counter the TV image of police behavior? Many departments have done it.

Can the acceptance of violence and racism be eliminated? In time.

But until Americans stop declaring "wars" on their neighbors and commit themselves to providing our cities with something more than "police protection," all this will only make an incremental difference.

Ira Socol, a writer, is a former New York City police officer.

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