Joanna Schroeder thinks we should pause before automatically condemning members of anti-gang police forces who form brotherhoods while working in high crime zones.
The Los Angeles Times has a cover story today featuring the tattoo of alleged members within the LAPD’s gang enforcement unit.
One deputy, who has admitted belonging to a clique called the “Jump Out Boys,” has identified about half a dozen other deputies as members, one source confirmed. Those men are expected to be summoned for interviews with internal affairs investigators, the source said.
This investigation began a few weeks ago when printed material was found, relaying the Jump Out Boys’ mission, which according to the LA Times, allegedly encouraged “aggressive policing and portrayed officer shootings in a positive light.” The officers involved, including the one who voluntarily came forward, are being kept anonymous due to the ongoing nature of this investigation.
The tattoo, which features a skull, a “dead man’s hand” of playing cards, and a gun, is thought to be updated when an officer is involved in shooting a gang member, at which point smoke is added to the gun.
These so-called cliques are not new in law enforcement. The LA Times elaborates:
Last year, the department fired a group of deputies who all worked on the third, or “3000,” floor of Men’s Central Jail after the group fought two fellow deputies at an employee Christmas party and allegedly punched a female deputy in the face.
Sheriff’s officials later said the men had formed an aggressive “3000” clique that used gang-like three-finger hand signs. A former top jail commander told The Times that jailers would “earn their ink” by breaking inmates’ bones.
Obviously the problem with these tattoos isn’t the ink itself, but the indication of the glorification of killing. There is some indication that a tattoo which seems to glorify killing will also compromise an officer’s credibility while testifying in court against defendants. These tattoos certainly won’t lend confidence to an officer of the law’s tendency toward impartiality and metered dispensation of justice.
But one can’t help but wonder if these brotherhoods within law enforcement aren’t somehow seen as a necessary survival mechanism for cops whose beats are particularly rough. Gang killings in Los Angeles make up roughly 42% of murders in the city. A fascinating chart by the LA Almanac shows the rate at which the total murders in LA were on the decline (through 2001 – according to the LA Almanac, more recent data has not been released), but the percentage of murders that are attributed to gang violence seems to have been rapidly increasing.*
Without a doubt, gang violence is a plague to our society’s young men. One can only image the toll that working for the elite anti-gang unit of the LAPD takes on an officer. John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor Maria Haberfeld was quoted by the LA Times as saying:
“Even though they are authorized to use deadly force, I don’t think it’s a cause for celebration,” she said. “When you reach a point in your career that you have no choice but to use deadly force, if anything it’s incredibly traumatic for the shooter. It’s a little bizarre to commemorate a tragic event.”
I have no doubt that Dr. Haberfeld is correct, but if you can enter into the mindset of these officers who see violence every day, it seems plausible that the lines between what is tragic and what is necessary become blurred. I can’t help but be reminded of a piece I wrote a few weeks ago for The Good Feed Blog about so-called “War Porn” – commemorative photographs and items that some service people keep in “celebration” of their victories.
In that piece, I quoted the boldly honest John Rico of Salon.com, who said:
The real grotesqueness isn’t in infantry soldiers taking a few war trophies. No, it’s the idea that’s been sold to the American public that war can be sterile. It’s the idea that 18-year-olds who have been ordered to kill people will never play with the body parts afterward.
And are our police officers who work the gang unit not soldiers of a different type of war? Certainly the 24/7 nature of being an infantry soldier cannot be justly compared to that of a police officer who gets to return to his home and family regularly, but is the task of being a mortal man assigned to choose who lives and who dies not just as daunting?
On the other hand, something else is evoked when we think about The Jump Out Boys… For us Angelenos, it takes only one word to remind us of why gang- or mafia-mentality within a police force is dangerous: Rampart.
In the late 1990s, a series of crimes were tied to the Rampart division of anti-gang LAPD task force members, including shootings, beatings, framings and even a bank robbery. Death Row Records, with alleged ties to The Bloods gang, hired LAPD Rampart officers as bodyguards (though this in and of itself is not unusual—a large number of LAPD officers also work security jobs when off-duty. My husband hires off-duty cops to guard television, commercial and film sets all the time).
There is no doubt that corruption within a police department is more frightening than your average crime syndicate. After all, we need to be able to trust our police. However, aren’t the police officers assigned to the most dangerous elements of society also experiencing some of the same emotional fallout that veterans like John Rico refer to?
Where is the line between what helps an officer in a dangerous job survive, and what compromises the wellbeing of our citizens? Is a tattoo like those allegedly being worn by members of The Jump Out Boys indicative of a sort of “serial killer mentality” or is it a survival strategy for officers whose days are spent in a veritable domestic war zone?
What do you think?
*It is important to note that there is another chart on the LA Almanac site that gives stats for murders and other gang-related crimes within the city of Los Angeles. One will notice that gang-related murders seem to be dropping in the last ten years, however, as there seems to be no readily available data for county-wide gang-related murders, such an extrapolation isn’t as conclusive as we would like it to be in order to deduce a total number for county-wide gang-related murders.
Los Angeles County is a much wider area and it’s entirely possible that gang activity has migrated outside of the city limits. According to StreetGangs.com, “while a majority of the gang related slayings were in the urban core, in the San Fernando Valley, the murder rate spiked 60% in 2001 because of gang related killings.” This may show a progression of gang violence out of the core city of Los Angeles into areas such as the San Fernando Valley and other areas. More gang-related data can be found here, though the same recent county-wide data is missing. If anyone knows of a source for more comprehensive data, I’d appreciate a referral.
Lead image from the LA Times