“I’m crazy about the president, Josh. […] And I’ll keep poking him with a stick. That’s how I show my love.”
–Amy Gardner, in The West Wing (“The Red Mass”)
It was just about midnight when I heard the tires of the Fullerton Police Department cruiser crunching gravel as it moved along the road that curves around the lake of Tri-City Park. I thought the driver might not spot me sitting there on an unlit bench, dressed in black, silent and still. But then came the spotlight, which in a moment shakily found me in its beam.
I turned and waved hello, fully expecting the next sound I heard to be the crackling of a loudspeaker and an authoritative voice ordering me to approach the car. Instead, the light went out, and the car continued on its way.
I wasn’t all that surprised. While bad acts and apples make the news when it comes to the cops, the vast majority of police encounters are both completely lawful and totally uneventful.
Nonetheless, I write about the police—questioningly and sometimes critically—seemingly more—a lot more—than anybody else in Long Beach. (Not that that’s saying much, since Long Beach media generally seems unwilling to do so.) You might think that means I have something against the police. But here’s a little secret: I love the police.
I’ll say it again: I love the police. I live only a couple of blocks away from the Long Beach Police Department’s West Division headquarters, and I like the proximity. Heck, if the LBPD wants to open up a little substation in my building, I’m all for it. No doubt the police are charged with enforcing some bogus laws, but most of what they do needs doing.
About a half-hour after my Thanksgiving encounter with the po-po, I was making my way around the lake when a cruiser—whether the same or another I don’t know—stopped nearby. The officer got out, and I made my way toward him. I took my hands out of my pockets (not only a nice thing to do for the officer, but advisable to help secure your own well-being, you know?), waved, said “Hi.”
With my strong libertarian leanings, I am quick to exercise my right not to speak with police when they have no business stopping me. I’ve even taken legal action when I felt the wrong was egregious enough. But in this case even if the officer didn’t have an out-and-out legal right to stop me—and if the park was closed (as I guessed it was), he certainly did—I didn’t have the slightest problem with his wanting to see what’s up.
The officer looked about 25 and was not exactly bubbling over with warmth, but there was nothing aggressive or unprofessional. He asked me what I was doing. “Out for a walk?” he correctly guessed. He asked if I lived around there: I didn’t, but my mother did. He told me the park was closed. “Oh. Okay,” I said. And that was that. He didn’t ask to see my ID, because my personal information was neither here nor there concerning our encounter. I was in the park after-hours, he let me know—c’est tout.
If you’ve followed local police stories in recent years, you know about the Kelly Thomas incident, and so you know that Fullerton is no more immune to questionable uses of force by police than Long Beach or anywhere else. But you can’t rightly judge an entire police force on the basis of a few dubious officers or actions, any more than you can write off excessive uses of force on the basis that most police officers don’t do that.
As a society, we cede a tremendous amount of power to the police. Aside from the military—which plays basically no role in day-to-day life within the confines of our borders—members of law enforcement are the only people to whom we give permission to use physical force against others. The charge we give police—to use force, but only when truly necessary to protect and serve society—is a sacred duty, worthy of requiring an oath. I recently saw video of a Los Angeles Police Academy graduation ceremony. One by one, these cadets-become officers are handed handguns. It’s a ceremonial act with heavy implications.
I hate the use of force and the weaponry that facilitates it, but I want the police to use force when necessary, equipped with handguns and rifles and tazers and billy clubs and whatever else they need to protect not only the rest of us but also themselves. I’d even like to see them get better funding and higher salaries in the process. That’s how much I love them.
But love, true love, is not blind approbation; it’s not about being a “yes” man. If it’s true that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and if it’s true that the police do not want to be a corrupt corpus, then any police force should welcome checks on its power. Clearly, one of those checks is an investigative, questioning press and robust, intellectually honest public discussion about what is happening within the Thin Blue Line. They shouldn’t look for stenography from the media. They should want the press to press them on police conduct. They should embrace transparency, since the best possible public relations for the police is close, skeptical scrutiny that reveals police engaging in perfectly proper procedures.
Based on my observation from a distance, as well as from my first-hand experience as a journalist in this town over the last several years, the LBPD does not seem to subscribe to this theory. But I love them anyway. And as with anyone I love, I want the LBPD to be better, always better, always healthier. That’s why I poke a stick at them so much: it’s how I show my love.
It’s not the only way, though. Years ago I felt wrongly detained by a couple of LBPD officers, and I called their sergeant to complain. After a series of discussions with him—wherein he personified the kind of openness and transparency I advocate—he told me that, although it didn’t seem to him that any misconduct had occurred, I was free to file a formal complaint; but that it sounded to him like my issue was not about misconduct (it wasn’t: they had been aggressive or even rude) as with their taking an overly broad interpretation of what is required to justly detain someone. He offered to speak with them personally about this. Satisfied, I let the matter drop.
Then there was the press conference announcing a number of gang arrest. During a prefabricated photo op showing confiscated weapons, etc., a detective unobtrusively pulled a jacket off the table. I had already taken a picture with the jacket—spread out so you could clearly see the name of the gang—in-frame. Not wanting to run a photo that might somehow compromise an ongoing operation, I asked the detective why he pulled the jacket. “No reason,” he lied to my face. It took a bit of self-control not to run the photo out of spite, but I asked another detective, who went with the truth: the jacket had been set out mistakenly, and yes, that was information they would not like made public at that time. I went with an alternate photo.
Recently, I was out on Pine Ave. hoping to shoot an appropriate pic for a piece I’d just finished about a police encounter I’d had there the week before (see above). I came upon the perfect shot: four LBPD officers leaning against a car, while across the street behind them a club was letting out. I asked them whether they would mind my taking their pic: they said they would. They weren’t saying I couldn’t—you can take a photo of anything in public, including cops on the job—and after a short, friendly conversation about why, and I ended up settling for a lesser shot. Because, hey, police are people, too, and like many of us, some aren’t crazy about having a camera shoved in their face. And since this wasn’t a question of newsworthiness or some other pressing public interest, I gave them a break.
Because the police have literally so much power over the rest of us, what they do deserves intense scrutiny—via words, photographs, video, what have you. It comes with the territory. Unfortunately, law enforcement doesn’t always like it that way. Sometimes that sentiment manifest in officers getting aggressive with bystanders filming them. Sometimes it simply comes down to departments being less responsive with anyone in the media who would dare question anything they do.
I love the police nonetheless, and I’ll keep loving them in my way, hoping that in the long run more and more of them will come to realize what many of them already do: scrutiny and debate are the friends of well-intended power.
So happy new year to police in Long Beach and everywhere! May whatever pokes you receive in 2014 be taken in the proper spirit (and may there always be less to poke about).
LBPD Chief Jim McDonnell
LBPD Sgt. Aaron Eaton (Media Relations)