SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

The thin blue line as seen through the eyes of a cop who has walked it -- from Rodney King to O.J. Simpson.

Published February 12, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

the Los Angeles Police Department has been at the center of two of the most divisive racial confrontations of the '90s -- the Rodney King beating and the O.J. Simpson trial -- events that added to the department's long-standing reputation, especially among minorities, as racist, brutal and inept. The LAPD's behavior has prompted a review not only of its own policies, but of police practices nationwide.

William Dunn was a rookie cop in the LAPD when the Rodney King riots took place. At the time, he was assigned to L.A.'s Southwest Division, an area known for its thriving drug market and high felony rates. He now works the West Side, where O.J. Simpson resides.

In "Boot: An LAPD Officer's Rookie Year" (Morrow), Dunn writes that cops simply wants to "carve out a piece of sanity" on the streets. In the wake of the O.J. Simpson civil trial verdict, Salon spoke to Dunn about the mood in the LAPD these days.

What was the reaction in the department when the verdict in O.J. Simpson's civil trial came down?

I'm in the division that handles O.J.'s home and we've all just been crossing our eyes and saying, "Oh brother" because we have to deal with the media crush up there. We're just glad it's finally coming to an end.

Do you think justice was served, both in the criminal and in the civil trial?

If he had been found guilty (in the criminal trial), I really think that we would have been in civil unrest mode because of how people viewed the case down in South Central. But once O.J. was found not guilty, a lot of people really looked at the case with open eyes instead of just saying, "Oh, it's the white establishment taking it out on an African American who has made a name for himself." Now, after the civil trial, they can stand back and look at all the evidence and say, "Hey, wait. This guy must really be guilty."

I think the O.J. Simpson case has also made a lot of people see just how tough our job is -- to get some of these people convicted. I mean, we can do the best job that we can. And I really think those detectives did a good job, despite what happened with Mark Fuhrman.

How do you and your colleagues feel about Fuhrman?

I've never met Mark Fuhrman. I worked the division he worked and I've talked to people, but no one has said he is a racist or that he used a heavy hand. All I've heard was that he was a partyer, a playboy. He used to hit the bars after work.

And he called African Americans "niggers," at least in a taped interview.

The guy did a stupid thing by making a tape for that screenwriter. I don't know what his mind-set was, but it was a dumb thing. Is it indicative that the guy is a racist? Well, maybe the guy has some thoughts that aren't all that good. But when you look at his record over 20 years, I don't think he was an evil, malicious person.

But given Fuhrman's racist comments and the Rodney King beating, don't African Americans have a right to be distrustful of the LAPD?

Those two events are definitely not representative of the force -- especially as they were twisted by the media. I mean Rodney King was portrayed as a motorist instead of an ex-con. And with Fuhrman they say, "Well, he made those tapes," but they never said it was in the privacy of his own home and because the woman he was with wanted to write a screenplay.

African Americans are getting screwed in a lot different ways. There are no parks for their kids to play in, car insurance is astronomical, there's a huge problem with illegal immigrants taking jobs. They're really getting screwed. We're the one symbol they see because we're driving among them. Even though we have a lot of minorities on the LAPD, they see the white faces and that's what they associate with the department.

Still, the LAPD has a reputation for brutality. Have you witnessed officers using what you -- or a civilian -- would consider excessive force?

No, I haven't run into that, though I did work with a guy who was arrested for doing rapes on duty. I've seen guys get mad and yell. I've seen a few shoves. But no punches or anything. I've only had to use my club once when I was trying to put cuffs on a car theft suspect and he starting swinging at me. We travel in packs. So If someone gets really violent there is backup.

So, contrary to what the public may think, your job isn't all about beating motorists and tampering with evidence?

(Laughs) No. A typical day involves answering a lot of radio calls, and then about once a day something exciting happens -- you start following a car with a warrant or you catch an armed robbery suspect. People usually give up to us. We don't have a lot of foot pursuits or car chases like we used to. When I first came on, we chased everybody. Part of that was because I worked the South end. And the other part is because the LAPD has changed their pursuit policy.

Because of the Rodney King case in 1991?

Well, the department was moving away from chases before then because it wanted to avoid car crashes. So we stopped chasing people with traffic tickets. Plus, we have air units up full-time now.

A lot of force was used in connection with busting drug dealers. How goes the war on drugs in L.A.?

The problem in Los Angeles is that when people get arrested for drugs you don't really see them doing any time behind it. You can be out selling drugs and your punishment could be time in a drug treatment program -- even if you don't do drugs! To me that is kind of ridiculous. It seems to me, if you were to put some guys away for some hard time right at the beginning, then the minor players wouldn't want to get involved. Right now, if you get sent away for a year in county jail, you will only do 84 days. And all the bad guys know it.

From the cops' point of view, does incarceration work any better?

I think legitimately about 10 percent of the prison population can be rehabilitated. There's another 5 percent that are in a kind of gray area. For the other 85 percent it (violent crime) is their lifestyle and they will commit crimes no matter what you do to them. So we've got to incarcerate them because otherwise they are going to be a real problem.

What is the morale like on the force now?

Morale went through the floor with Rodney King. Citizens were verbally abusing us on the streets for a year or two after that. But most officers are pretty positive people. Street cops have a little bit of a family thing going in the divisions. I still love going to work.

Where were you during the riots?

I was right there. My car was destroyed and I almost got my head taken off by a brick. On the second day of the riots I was in a situation where two other officers and I were surrounded by about 100 people. We put out a help call, but no one could come. We put the car in reverse and drove back down the street with people chasing us, throwing rocks and bottles. When I saw that many people, in the middle of the day -- both gang members and regular citizens too -- I realized how much we were hated.

The riots ended the reign of Chief Daryl Gates and brought in a black chief, Willie Williams. Now he's in some trouble, over allegations of expense-paid vacations and so forth. Do you think he's doing a good job, and will he be reappointed?

People are really tired of all the controversy he's brought with him. I just saw in the paper that he has really high public approval ratings. But I don't think among the street officers there is all that much support for him -- especially since we don't see too much support from him. Any one of the 10 deputy chiefs could do the job better. With all the controversy going on with Willie and the bad way that he's made the department look, I think it's time for us to move on.

Is there tension in the force over affirmative action?

There's a buzz every time someone gets overlooked for promotion. People say the other guy got the job because they are this color or that color. It does give you a little bit of a burn. But then you put it behind you and move on.

What does "boot" mean?

In New York and Chicago, first-year cops are called rookies. In L.A. we came up with our own slang, "boot," because officers have to keep their boots spit-shined. When you're in your first year you have to keep your gear really clean. It's got to have a mirror finish to it.

Only in your first year?

No. I mean, right now all my gear is on the floor and I've just put a bunch of gloss on it. It's a pride thing. It's also an officer safety thing. I've heard this from a lot of different sources -- that hard-core ex-cons look at things like whether your badge and boots are shiny. They reason that if you're taking the time to shine, then you're taking the time to practice shooting and self-defense. They'll attack a sloppy officer before they'll attack a neat one.


Group therapy

Appleton, Wis. -- A woman is suing her former psychiatrist for malpractice, claiming he convinced her she had 120 personalities -- and then charged her insurance company for group therapy ...Blue Cross, which paid about $113,000 to (Dr. Kenneth) Olson, said Olson billed for group sessions, claiming he was counseling more than one person because of the alleged split personalities.

-- A wire service report in Wednesday's San Francisco Chronicle.)

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

MORE FROM Lori Leibovich

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