We return now to the matter of Ted Rall, the leftist cartoonist/columnist whose work until recently appeared in the Los Angeles Times. We discussed Rall’s parting of ways with the newspaper in this space last week, but for those of you who missed that column (and shame on you), here is a summary of the relevant events:
On May 11, the Times published a piece by Rall in which he criticized the Los Angeles Police Department for its stepped-up enforcement against pedestrian traffic violations such as jaywalking. Included in that criticism was an account of his own experience of rough treatment at the hands of an LAPD motorcycle officer, this occurring when he was stopped in Hollywood and cited for walking against a red light in October 2001. According to Rall, he was innocent of the charge, but he was nonetheless handcuffed, roughed up, and thrown against a wall before receiving his traffic ticket. The commotion, as Rall told it, attracted the attention of passersby, “a couple dozen” of whom were soon shouting in protest at the officer.
The tale came to the attention of someone within the LAPD, someone of sufficient rank and placement in the department to inquire if the complaint had ever been investigated. It had been. Shortly after the incident, Rall wrote a letter of complaint to the LAPD, which was duly investigated by a sergeant at West Traffic Division, where the involved officer was assigned. The conclusion reached within the LAPD was that the officer had acted appropriately during his encounter with Rall, a conclusion backed up by the officer’s audio recording of the incident.
I’m unaware of how this information reached the attention of the editors at the L.A. Times, but keep in mind that the newspaper’s offices and the LAPD headquarters building sit on opposite sides of Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles. LAPD officers sometimes eat in the Times’ cafeteria, where a cop on a budget can find good food at a reasonable price. (I used to eat there myself on occasion.) Though there is a history of friction between the two organizations, individuals within them have been known to have professional and even friendly relationships over the years.
In any event, someone from the LAPD informed someone from the Times that Rall’s tale of abuse during the 2001 traffic stop had been investigated and found to be false. The LAPD provided the Times with copies of the audiotape and documents related to the investigation, and a reporter was assigned to investigate further on behalf of the newspaper. The conclusion reached by the editors was that, yes, Rall had indeed embellished his account, inventing details that had not occurred. On July 28, Nicholas Goldberg, an editor at the Times, issued a “note to readers” in which he laid out the paper’s case against Rall. “Rall’s future work,” he wrote, “will not appear in The Times.”
Since being shown the exit at the Times, Rall and his defenders have taken to Twitter and various other forums on the Internet (including the comments to my earlier piece) to proclaim his innocence and assert that an “enhanced” version of the audiotape provided to the Times actually vindicates him. They make their case most prominently at a website called A New Domain, where you can read their arguments here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
In the wake of all this, Rall’s reputation, not to mention his income, has been harmed, about which I confess to no small amount of schadenfreude. But one cannot truly enjoy another’s misfortune — no matter how annoying one may find that person — if the case against him is not legitimate, so a sense of fairness demands that Rall and his defenders be given a decent hearing, which you can do by reading the posts at A New Domain linked above. If you haven’t the time to read all of that, you can limit yourself to this post, in which Rall posted the “enhanced” audio of his run-in with the police officer as well as a transcript, or rather a transcript of what Rall claims to hear.
Before continuing, it’s important to know the process of how the audio was first recorded and then transferred within the LAPD. Like many officers at that time, the one who stopped Rall was carrying a micro-cassette recorder. (I carried one myself; I switched to a digital recorder in 2005.) California law requires that all parties to a private conversation give consent to having it recorded, but there is a provision that allows police officers to record their public contacts without the knowledge or consent of those with whom they speak. So the officer had his recorder and was in the habit of recording all of his traffic stops, three of which were on the tape in question. Prior to stopping Rall, the officer cited someone for not wearing a seat belt, and after stopping Rall, he cited someone for having no license plate on the front of his car. (As an amusing, only-in-L.A. aside, that driver protested that he had been too busy to put the plate on because he had been working “on a feature film.” He got a ticket anyway.)
When a complaint is made against an officer, the assigned investigator asks the officer if he recorded the incident and, if so, to provide the tape. In the pre-digital age of the Rall incident, the investigator obtained the officer’s tape and recorded it on another tape recorder, which he also used to conduct any interviews the investigation might have required. (According to the LAPD, Rall never responded to phone messages requesting an interview, and the tape contains a message left by the investigator on Rall’s answering machine.)
After some time had passed and Rall still had not returned the investigator’s calls, the investigator submitted his findings to the captain at West Traffic Division, who most likely adjudicated the complaint as “unfounded.” You should note that in his letter of complaint to the LAPD, written less than two weeks after the incident, Rall did not say he had been handcuffed or roughed up or physically mistreated, only that the officer had been “belligerent and hostile,” and that he had thrown Rall’s driver’s license into the gutter.
Again, I have no inside knowledge of how the tape made its way to the editors at the L.A. Times, but I have enough knowledge of how the LAPD works to offer my informed speculation. When Rall’s May 11 piece appeared in the Times, it was noted by someone in the Media Relations Section, where all references to the LAPD in the local press and elsewhere are collected and disseminated via the department’s internal computer network to anyone who cares to read them. Rall’s tale of suffering at the hands of an LAPD officer prompted someone to send an email or write a memo to inquire if Rall had ever complained about the incident, and if so, what was the outcome. When it was learned that the incident had been investigated and found to have occurred in a manner that differed in most respects from the way Rall had described in the Times, someone in the LAPD picked up a phone or walked across the street and contacted someone at the Times. “Listen to this,” the cop probably said, “and make of it what you will.”
And at the Times, they listened, they were persuaded, and they handed Rall his cards.
“But not so fast,” say Rall and his supporters. “The enhanced version of the tape tells a different story.”
But does it? I’ve listened to the tape several times using high-quality Bose headphones, and I’m unable to hear some of the things Rall claims to hear. I also note that some of the things I can hear are incorrectly transcribed. For example, the transcript has the officer saying he’s with the “L.A. County Police Department.” There is no such police department. What the officer says is, “Officer Durr, Los Angeles Police Department.” The officer goes on to explain the reason he has stopped Rall, and Rall responds by saying he’s “sorry.” The officer obtains Rall’s driver’s license, and what follows is traffic noise and mostly unintelligible voices as the officer writes out the citation.
Rall makes an issue of the fact that the officer can be heard whistling and humming at various times during the incident, claiming that the officer did this so as to conceal the incriminating sounds that might otherwise be heard. But the whistling and humming take up no more than ten seconds of an encounter that lasted more than six minutes. If there had been “a couple dozen” angry passersby shouting at the officer, would ten seconds of whistling and humming have been effective in drowning out their voices? Rall also says that one of these people, a woman, asks the officer, “Why’d you handcuff him?” What sounds like “handcuff” to Rall sounds like “hassle” to me, and given the lack of anything else on the tape to indicate Rall was handcuffed, I submit my interpretation is more likely to be accurate than his. When an officer handcuffs someone, he first gives some preparatory instructions, such as “Turn around and your hands behind your back,” or words to that effect. No such instructions can be heard on the tape, and no words of protest can be heard from Rall as one would expect to hear from someone who is being handcuffed without justification.
And there is nothing on the tape or in Rall’s purported transcript that would indicate he was thrown against a wall and “roughed up” as he claimed in his May 11 piece. Nor is there anything to indicate that a second officer arrived and ordered the first one to let Rall go as Rall described. All there is on the tape, even the so-called “enhanced” version on which Rall so heavily relies, is the sound of a routine traffic stop, perhaps interspersed with commentary from a few sidewalk lawyers who felt themselves qualified to offer an opinion on how the officer might better spend his time.
Rall reaches for another straw in this post when he accurately quotes the officer as saying, near the conclusion of the encounter, “Here, I’ll take that until we’re done.” “It was probably at that point,” says Rall, “that he removed the handcuffs, in order to free up my hand so I could sign the ticket.”
I don’t think so. A far likelier explanation is that the item the officer referred to was Rall’s driver’s license. Many officers clip a violator’s driver’s license to their ticket books so as to make it easier to refer to it while writing the citation. An officer will most often hold the license until the violator has signed the citation, then hand over the license with the violator’s copy of the citation. My interpretation of that part of the tape is that Rall tried to take his license before the officer was ready to give it to him. Rall’s attempt to ascribe it to the officer removing handcuffs borders on delusional.
But people will believe what they wish to believe. I admit my bias in favor of the officer, and there are those, like Rall, who wouldn’t believe an LAPD cop who said the sky is blue. Listen to the recordings yourself, read the explanations offered by Rall and his defenders, and reach your own conclusions. The editors at the L.A. Times reached theirs, and despite Rall’s protestations, they won’t be changing their minds.