Everyone who watched the video of the recent fracas between an off-duty Los Angeles police officer and a group of teens in front of his Anaheim home should be able to agree on at least one simple point. A little bit of kindness and decency—a central theme in Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait’s administration—would have avoided much anger and danger. But the incident also raises a more controversial question: Are police officers given preferential treatment even in off-duty incidents?

Kids walking home from school ought not to traipse on people’s yards, which was the spark here, according to the police chief. But the video shows some struggling and the officer grabbing a 13-year-old and dragging him around. The video shows the man eventually being rushed by other teens apparently trying to help the boy, and then the officer discharges his gun toward the ground. The officer claims the teen threatened to shoot him, although the boy said he threatened to “sue” the man. A neighbor told a news station she also heard him say “sue” rather than “shoot.” Someone could have gotten seriously injured — and there was no need to fire a weapon.

The boy claims he was sticking up for a young girl after the cop allegedly cursed at her after she stepped on his lawn. Now, if it were my son, I’d be proud that he defended the honor of a young woman, although I’d warn against confronting someone shielded by what’s known as “blue privilege,” another term for the extreme deference police agencies show to fellow members of their brotherhood.

And it explains much of the community anger here.

In terms of public policy, the details—who said what and shoved whom—are less important than the reasons for the ensuing protests. As the Register reported, “Chaos erupted … after what started as a peaceful assembly … turned into a protest involving as many as 300 people.” Police arrested two dozen people. There reportedly were acts of vandalism, which is never justified. City officials held a news conference expressing concern.

“I, like many in the community, have seen the video, and am deeply concerned and, frankly, angered about what it shows,” Tait said. “I have received many questions asking why the kids were arrested, but not the guy with the gun. Our community deserves an answer to that question.” But he emphasized that residents “need to respect the process.” That sounds like a textbook case of calm rationality, despite some criticism Tait received for his words.

Having written about many police-involved incidents, I share such concerns. For starters, if it weren’t for the video, it would be their word against the officer’s — and the officer’s account would be taken as gospel truth. Even with the video, the 13-year-old and another teen were arrested, although later released. Suffice to say, some of the teens would surely be heading to juvenile hall.

We know the drill. If it were a regular guy who fired a weapon, he would not have been treated so deferentially. Police always tell us to remain quiet and let them sort through the mess, even as they make statements and take actions that defend their own.

The teens didn’t seem to be acting like hoodlums, although we can’t say what transpired before the recording started. Yes, yes, let’s be patient. Let’s recognize, too, that despite the bad optics, the situation could have seemed threatening from the cops’ perspective. Videos never tell the full story, but myriad incidents across the country have shown how often initial police descriptions of such events seem to be at odds with the video evidence. Thank goodness for video.

I’ve read about a fair number of altercations involving police officers over the years. My theory: Most citizens aren’t covered by “blue privilege,” so we’re extremely careful to resolve matters in a peaceful manner. That’s one reason there are so few problems related to the holders of concealed-carry permits.

This incident recalls one of the stranger events involving an Orange County politician. In 2015, Supervisor Todd Spitzer, a former reserve police officer, was at a restaurant when a man approached him to discuss the Bible. The unarmed man was acting bizarre, according to Spitzer, so he called 911, went to his car, grabbed a loaded gun and then handcuffed the man until police responded to his call.

I work in a part of Sacramento akin to an outdoor insane asylum. Bizarre-seeming and potentially dangerous people approach me regularly, yet I’ve never resorted to such aggressiveness. Over the years, I’ve shooed away from my properties drug dealers and even teens walking across the yard. I deal with it politely, knowing that I’d get no special privilege if things turn ugly. Maybe a little more police accountability will lead to a kinder, more decent society.

Image by enterlinedesign

Featured Publications