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A Rough Arrest in Los Angeles

Chief Charlie Beck, like any police chief, prefers to get his bad news from an internal source rather than from some pesky reporter. When controversy erupts, Beck likes to have his facts at the ready when the inevitable media inquiries begin. He also likes to be able to say that if any corrective action is called for, it has already begun.  So when a reporter for L.A.’s KNBC started asking questions about a videotaped arrest in which a woman was slammed to the ground not just once but twice, the second time while in handcuffs, Chief Beck was in the uncomfortable position of having to say, “Huh?”

On August 21, two LAPD officers out of Foothill Division stopped Michelle Jordan, 34, for talking on her cell phone while driving. According to her lawyer, Ms. Jordan admits arguing with the officers and making some “unwise moves,” but did nothing to warrant the severe treatment she received. A witness interviewed by KNBC said the officers were at first justified in arresting Jordan “for resisting,” a judgment not readily supported or refuted by the video as shown on the news report. “But the second part,” says the witness, “was overboard.”

And that characterization is hard to argue with, and indeed appears to be wildly understated. The “second part” was when Jordan, having already been wrestled to the ground and handcuffed, was standing at the rear of the police car. For reasons not the least bit apparent on the videotape, one of the officers, reportedly a 22-year veteran, swings her violently by the arm and slams her to the ground. The second officer, a rookie, merely looks on as though bewildered at what he has just witnessed. Ms. Jordan suffered what must have been painful scrapes and bruising on her face, shoulders, and chest.

As they were required to do, the officers summoned a supervisor to the scene, and in the course of his investigation he discovered that the incident had been recorded by a Del Taco restaurant’s security camera. That supervisor surely notified his watch commander, who I can only suppose notified Capt. Hiltner.  (If he hadn’t, that watch commander would today find himself in the soup along with his captain.) And that apparently is where the notifications ceased, leaving Chief Beck fumbling for an answer when the reporter posed questions about the arrest. When made aware of the facts of the case, and after viewing the video, Beck removed the involved officers from field duty and yanked Capt. Hiltner from his command. “The level of force that was used at the end of the incident,” Beck told KNBC reporter Gordon Tokumatsu, “is not justified by what I see in the [arrest] report.”

In a statement posted on the LAPD’s website on Aug. 30, Beck said,

I have serious concerns about this incident and I believe the Commanding Officer of Foothill Area was severely deficient in his response. Proper steps were not taken, including appropriate notifications and the removal of the involved officers from the field. Because of these issues, I have removed him from his command and initiated downgrade procedures. Every Los Angeles Police Officer, regardless of rank, will be held accountable for their actions.

Just so.  I don’t know any of the officers involved, but my sympathies are with the rookie, who has been out of the academy only three or four months and as such, was all but powerless to prevent his tenured partner from losing his temper and placing both their jobs in jeopardy. Like most police officers, I can recall being a rookie and working with senior officers whose fuses were shorter than they should have been, and I can recall finishing my shift with some of them and being thankful that they hadn’t done anything that would have had me fired or indicted.

The Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union of which I am a dues-paying member, issued a statement that, while acknowledging that officers must be held accountable for their actions, accused Chief Beck of prejudging the officers and reminding him that they, like anyone accused of a crime, are entitled to a presumption of innocence. Fine. It is the Protective League’s duty to defend its members, and Chief Beck has the duty of seeing to it that his accused officers are treated fairly. He may, in fact, have hindered his case against the officers by signaling that he had come to a conclusion absent the full investigation that has only just begun.

But the chief has the equally if not more compelling duty of maintaining public confidence in his department -- a necessity of which is reassuring the public that officers who abuse their authority in so egregious a fashion are not allowed to do it again. There may emerge some evidence that will serve to justify slamming a handcuffed woman face first to the pavement, but no reasonable cop who views that tape can imagine it happening. Let the investigations begin, let the chips fall where they may, and let justice be served.