When a Police Officer Kicks a Gang Member
If you've been near a television set in the last few days you've probably seen the video of that police officer kicking a man in the head at the end of a high-speed car chase here in the Los Angeles area. I watched the incident on the news last night, and my initial reaction was: "Uh oh."
Thursday's chase began when officers in El Monte, Calif., spotted a Toyota Camry with three men inside, men they quite reasonably (and as it turned out, accurately) took to be gang members. Camrys are among the most commonly stolen cars in Southern California, and there isn't a police officer worthy of the title who would have spotted those three characters in one without running its license number to see if it had been stolen. Officers were following the car and doing just that when the driver, Richard Rodriguez, 23, took off.
The chase lasted 40 minutes, running at speeds nearing 85 miles an hour on freeways, surface streets, and even a sidewalk. When the Camry got stuck in traffic at one point the rear-seat passenger got out and surrendered, but the pursuit continued when traffic cleared. The chase came to an end when the Camry, driving on the wrong side of a divided street, sideswiped an oncoming car that had pulled not quite far enough to the side of the road. The front-seat passenger stayed in the car and gave up, but Rodriguez jumped from the driver's seat and ran. The video shows him running into what appeared to be the back yard of an apartment building where, apparently convinced that the jig was up, he lay prostrate and spread-eagled on the grass. One got the sense he was well practiced in the routine.
From out of the frame rushes a lone officer, pistol in hand. He slows, then approaches Rodriguez and delivers a kick to the right side of his head. Rodriguez reacts to the kick but does not appear to resist. Other officers arrive and assist in handcuffing Rodriguez, at the conclusion of which the first officer -- i.e., the kicker -- exchanges a high-five with a canine handler.
To his great credit, El Monte police chief Tom Armstrong gave a thoughtful statement after being shown the video by a reporter for KNBC news. "I'm looking into it," said Armstrong, "and I don't have all the facts yet. I worked internal affairs for four years, and I've learned that you do not make a decision in a vacuum. ... This is going to be looked into, and it should be, but I'm not here to make a decision and tell you what that officer did was overtly wrong until I know all the facts. I've learned that in the over 30 years I've been a cop." A cop in trouble can expect no more a reasonable response than that from a boss who's just had a big problem land on his desk.
As is almost always the case in such incidents, the outcome for the players involved will be determined as much by politics as it is by the application of the law and police procedures. Distasteful as it may be, one must evaluate the racial calculus before attempting to predict what might come to pass. Richard Rodriguez is Latino, as is the officer who kicked him, so there won't be any opportunity for breathless news reports about oppressed minorities being beaten down by racist white cops. Also, Mr. Rodriguez, freshly released from prison, and who sports the name of his street gang in tattoos on his upper lip and neck, is unlikely to arouse much sympathy, either in the public or in members of any jury that might come to hear evidence in this case.
And there is the fact that the story seems to have lost its "legs." The video has already disappeared from television news programs, and the outrage that often follows such televised arrests has failed to materialize. Recall that the video of Rodney King's 1991 arrest was played endlessly, leading to an expectation in the public that the officers accused of beating him would be convicted. When they weren't, Los Angeles erupted into rioting that left 53 people dead and large swaths of the city in ashes.
The ACLU, as might be expected, has written to Los Angeles County district attorney Steve Cooley asking that criminal charges against the officer be considered for his "egregious abuse of force against a suspect who had apparently already surrendered." There is no mention in the letter of their concern for the many lives endangered and the property damaged by Rodriguez's criminal behavior. Perhaps they're trying to cut down on the stationery.
But what should become of the officer who delivered the now-infamous kick? Nothing, according to a lawyer representing the El Monte Police Officers' Association. Attorney Dieter Dammier told the Los Angeles Times that the officer acted within his training and department policy. "The individual officer saw some movement," said Dammier. "He feared the parolee might have a weapon or be about to get up. So the officer did what is known as a distraction blow. It wasn't designed to hurt the man, just distract him."
Like any good attorney, Mr. Dammier is just doing his job, but that one is a stretch. Mr. Rodriguez was no doubt "distracted" by the kick, but even if such a kick were allowed under department policy (which I doubt), it certainly was not the proper tactic to employ at that time. The officer instead should have placed himself behind some kind of cover and waited for help to arrive before attempting to approach the suspect.
But as any cop can tell you, adrenalin is powerful stuff. My guess is that the officer in question, after a long and very stressful pursuit, ran into that yard not knowing that the suspect had given up, instead fully expecting a violent confrontation with him. When he turned the corner and saw the suspect lying on the grass, he was in effect like a bullet that had already been fired. He failed in that moment to re-program himself for the nonviolent conclusion that was unexpectedly but appropriately called for. In so failing, he endangered himself and his fellow officers by risking an altercation that might have resulted in a shooting, and he made them all look bad in the process.
News reports have identified the officer as a 15-year veteran of the department. Surely in that time he has posted a track record that would indicate whether the kick was part of a pattern or an aberration. If the former, perhaps it's time for him to find another line of work. If the latter, let him accept and learn from whatever punishment the process may demand, and then get back to work. Someone has to be willing to go out and chase the Robert Rodriguezes of the world.