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Cops and Dogs | The Nation

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Beat the Devil

Cops and Dogs

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In California, as in most states, any election aftermath involves a wan hunt for silver linings. As always, it's hard to find them. Gays will have to book flights to Vermont and take up residence there, in the hopes of someday securing legal sanction for their unions. Prop 21, which I wrote about two weeks ago, thundered through, set to criminalize future generations of errant teenagers. In tune with this freshet of Nazi laws, Governor Gray Davis has displayed his profound understanding of the separation of powers by announcing that "in interpreting the law I expect that [judges will] keep faith with the representations I made to the electorate."

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Alexander Cockburn
Alexander Cockburn, The Nation's "Beat the Devil" columnist and one of America's best-known radical...

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Pose a political threat to Business As Usual and sooner or later, mostly sooner, someone will try to kill you.

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The only silver lining I can find on the public menu to alleviate such horrors is the police scandal in Los Angeles, in which cops in the Rampart division have been caught in serious criminal conspiracies, including murder. Copdom is at last being afflicted by some awful PR, the Diallo acquittals in New York notwithstanding. It's all come not a moment too soon. I'd resigned myself to an endless flow of stories through the next decade about how the ineffable triumph of "broken windows" theories of policing, plus "three strikes" savagery in sentencing, had routed crime in America. In fact, there's no convincing correlation between policing strategies and crime rates. Virtually the only link that holds up over the decades is the one between crime and unemployment. The more of the latter, the more of the former.

Last year we saw copdom taking it on the chin over the torture of Abner Louima in New York and the "driving while black" outrages. This year it's been the Rampart scandal, which traces its specific origin to campaign pledges by Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan to hire more police. The cops who killed Diallo were similarly the consequence of a promised beef-up of the police force by Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In Los Angeles the raw recruits were rushed into their blue uniforms and then into the streets, where a significant number of them lost no time in deciding that the skills required in police work involved the ability to lie, steal and murder those who displeased them. Los Angeles already faces lawsuit payments totaling $125 million on the first ninety-nine cases brought in connection with the Rampart division. Mayor Riordan's bright idea is to meet this bill and its successors by issuing bonds against the city's expected windfall of $300 million in tobacco-settlement money, originally earmarked for healthcare.

One of copdom's prime glorifiers down the years has been the former LAPD officer and writer Joseph Wambaugh, who used the March 8 Op-Ed page of the Los Angeles Times to announce that the Rampart scandal is being overblown and that the scandal is confined "to the outrageous conduct of a few bad cops out of a force of 9,000 good ones." The somewhat unfortunate parallel Wambaugh used to buttress this thesis was that of the My Lai massacre. Despite allegations that My Lai was but "the tip of the iceberg," Wambaugh writes, "there were no other massacres. My Lai was an aberration never seen again during all the years of that terrible war." This is balderdash, but Wambaugh shows that he remembers accurately the PR triumph of My Lai, which is that careful news management by the Pentagon insured that the true story of the massacres, of which My Lai was but one, never emerged. Wambaugh harshly denounces LAPD chief Bernard Parks for insufficient skill in massaging the press into accepting the comfortable theory about the Rampart scandal that "this terrible event is not the tip of an iceberg. This is the iceberg."

Any opportunity to erode the Wambaugh-type sanctimonious puffery of copdom should be welcomed. More than one Nation reader responded with favorable comment on my recent column about the swelling absurdity of the "fallen hero" police funerals, designed to impress upon the public the dangers of police work (vastly exaggerated). Mark Didrickson, a lawyer in Vancouver, Washington, chides me for omitting mention of "the most extreme example of police funereal excess," which was the obsequies for a police dog killed while on duty in the Portland area.

My colleague Sumana Raychaudhuri sent me press clips of similar extravagant rites. Typical was what the New York Daily News described as a "hero's funeral" in 1998 in New Jersey involving Solo, a police dog. Solo was buried in a four-foot-long white casket decked with the US flag that was flying over the Washington, DC, Capitol the day he was shot while attempting to subdue a former Black Liberation Army member, Donald Bunting. (No difficulty in decoding the function of this ceremony, with cops and dogs united in the Great Chain of Being, against Evil.) Atop Old Glory on Solo's casket were a string of dog biscuits and a wreath of flowers in the shape of Solo's face, painted brown. Other K-9 officers approached the coffin, ordering their dogs to sit while bagpipes and drums played "Amazing Grace." "What a beautiful thing it was for this animal to give up his life for us," proclaimed the Rev. Peter Cooke, chaplain of the state's Police Chiefs Association. "This creature of God gave up his life as a matter of love." Solo came from Germany, and at first understood commands only if issued in the German tongue. I write as a dog lover, but this was kitsch raised to the level of the sublime.

There are plenty of cop-shoots-dog stories too. In raids the cops often lose no time in blazing away at Fido. In fact, copdom has taken another hit in the Bay Area for just such a fusillade. Alone at home on March 2, 11-year-old Max Castro called the cops when he thought he heard an intruder. Two cops came and encountered Sidney, an Old English sheepdog, and Nicco, an Akita-German shepherd mix. Sidney tried to protect Max by biting Officer Jennifer Dorantes, at which point her partner, rookie cop Julian Ng, hauled out his gun and fired. The bullet missed Sidney but passed through Max's knee and grazed Dorantes. Now Sidney and Nicco face the death penalty, due process in this instance being a hearing later this month into whether they were a "threat." The cops say Nicco might have lunged, and that's why he's up for lethal injection as a co-conspirator. All we need is George W. Bush at the execution to bring this year's dreary presidential campaign alive

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