Pubdate: Sun, 03 Sep 2000
Source: San Diego Union Tribune (CA)
Copyright: 2000 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.
Contact:  PO Box 120191, San Diego, CA, 92112-0191
Fax: (619) 293-1440
Author: George J. Bryjak
Note: Bryjak is a professor of sociology at the University of San Diego.


 From their inception in the 1840s, urban police departments have been 
organized along a military model. Widespread public drunkenness, high crime 
rates, race and ethnic riots and labor strife that often turned violent 
resulted in law enforcement agencies that "patrolled" city streets on a 
continual basis.

There is nothing inherently wrong with structuring police departments along 
military lines; agencies so designed exist in many democratic countries 
committed to the "rule of law." However, a problem arises when an 
organization with a militaristic orientation entrusted with significant 
power comes to believe that it is literally engaged in combat.

Over the past 30 to 35 years almost every administration at the federal 
level has waged its version of the "war on crime," and "war on drugs," a 
philosophy that has been embraced by many big-city police departments. 
Patrick Murphy, who headed police commissions of in three cities (Detroit, 
New York and Washington D.C.) stated, "There is no doubt that this 
war-on-drugs rhetoric is part of the problem . . . raiding all these crack 
houses, more guns on the street, cops getting automatics . . . It has cops 
so psyched up they think they're in combat."

The difference between city streets and a war zone is that in the former 
police officers encounter fellow citizens with constitutional rights while, 
in the latter, soldiers seek out and attempt to destroy the enemy. 
According to the testimony of recently convicted Los Angeles police officer 
Rafael Perez, it is clear that some members of Rampart CRASH (Community 
Resources Against Street Hoodlums) thought of themselves and their jobs 
more in terms of soldiers than peace officers.

Police officers who take the life of another human being in the line of 
duty typically experience remorse, and in some cases are so psychologically 
distraught by the experience that it precludes them from continuing their 
careers in law enforcement. Perez stated that the night unarmed Juan 
Saldana was shot and killed, he and two other officers "celebrated" in a 
bar until 6 a.m. or 7 a.m. the next day.

While this behavior seems incomprehensible to most people, it is 
understandable in the context that Saldana and other suspects were viewed 
as the enemy. Although it is true that criminally active gang members (as 
well as law violating non-gang members) are enemies of "law and order," 
they are not adversaries in a military sense to be dispatched as "targets 
of opportunity."

Over and above teaching individuals a variety of soldiering skills, 
military boot camp is primarily about changing people. After a lifetime of 
being taught that human life is sacred, recruits learn that they must kill 
their adversary on command. One way of accomplishing this deadly goal is by 
dehumanizing the enemy; that is, by redefining him as something less than 
human; an animal, for example. Once a designated group loses its status as 
human beings, members of that collectivity can be destroyed with few if any 
moral and ethical ramifications for the killers.

My guess is that some members of Rampart CRASH internalized this aspect of 
the military ethos; hardly surprising in a specialized unit with a strong 
sense of purpose and pride. It is worth noting that this dehumanization 
process is made easier when the enemy are members of a different racial or 
ethnic group, a situation that is not uncommon concerning the composition 
of urban police forces and gangs.

During the Vietnam War some American soldiers would attach a playing card 
to the bodies of Viet Cong casualties. For example, one Marine 
reconnaissance team's "death card" was an ace of spades adorned with a 
skull and crossbones.

While Rampart CRASH officers could not tag the individuals they shot with 
cards, they did the next best thing via presenting their fellows with 
plaques at shooting parties that featured playing cards with bullet holes 
through them. One officer noted that while this practice might appear 
"barbaric," "it's good for morale," and that individuals "talk about the 
shootings, how they're heroes or whatever." And just as it is better to 
kill one's foe than wound him on the battlefield, CRASH awards with a black 
card signifying death were more prestigious than red cards indicating that 
someone was wounded.

Shooting parties not only exacerbate an already formidable "we/they" 
perspective regarding the police and gang members, but are likely to 
facilitate additional shootings. People typically strive to repeat behavior 
for which they have been praised, especially when this adulation comes from 
significant others in a close knit quasi-military unit. Rampart CRASH is 
such a unit.

The military has always been a closed society given wide latitude by the 
federal government regarding its internal affairs. For much of the 20th 
century, urban police departments have been granted that same privilege. 
When and where local governments have attempted to make law enforcement 
agencies accountable to civilian review boards, they (the governments) have 
met with fierce resistance from police administrators.

Until World War I, urban police departments were often the handmaidens of 
"machine" politics, with too many cops little more than self-serving 
gangsters in thoroughly corrupt systems of bureaucratic patronage. Today, 
big-city police departments are largely independent of any meaningful 
civilian oversight in their everyday work.

However, the unprecedented ruling by a federal judge that the LAPD could be 
sued under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) 
dramatically changes the way society responds to police corruption and 
brutality. Although the Justice Department has been involved in local 
police wrongdoings on several occasions, this is the first time that the 
federal government would prosecute officers as members of a criminal 
enterprise. As such, the city could be liable for treble damages awarded to 
scores of individuals who successfully sue the LAPD for civil rights abuses.

This should prompt local governments around the country to push for greater 
oversight of police behavior. It is not unusual for big-city departments to 
quietly pay hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars annually to 
settle police brutality charges. However, the estimated $300 million the 
city of Los Angeles might have to shell out in damage awards is an entirely 
different story.

Bryjak is a professor of sociology at the University of San Diego.
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