Laying Down the Law in Los Angeles

William Eley

The ghetto birds, the cop choppers, ”the largest ... airborne law enforcement operation in the world.”  No, do not mistake these nouns and adjectives for descriptions of a regimental-sized air element of a first-world military tasked with destroying enablers and instruments of international  terror.  This litany does, however, provide many with a common slang for the Los Angeles Police Department’s presence above the labrynthine sprawl of the city it “protects and serves.”

           

Thus, the plaintiff metaphor lies in how the ever-present drone of a 19-plus helicopter division over a major American city has evolved, or devolved, into such a banality.  Or, even more thoroughly deconstructed, how does an American culture, in a post-9/11 context, digest and synthesize proclamations that “the current methods of contemporary urban policing have become enmeshed with the overall objectives, strategic logic, and daily practice of counterinsurgency,” as posited by George Ciccariello-Haher and Mike King in their piece American Blowback, written in the wake of the cable-news-scape that was the murderous Christopher Dorner retaliation spree? 

 

For if Los Angeles is to continue to claim its relevance as the nation’s microcosm, when and where will the symbolism be understood and made actionable?  Will the whirring of helicopters overhead that stoke a surreal deja vu of a Baghdad and Kabul that most of us have only witnessed from inside a television become accepted as part of the American sonic landscape?  We must ask ourselves, how deeply has military doctrine practiced abroad been sewn into our respective municipal security apparatuses at home?           

           

Though the cable-news ticker and its talking heads might present bottomless quantities of seemingly anecdotal and disconnected events that pertain to terror, civil liberties, and the expansion of domestic policing powers, there lies a vastly larger responsibility in boxing the compass and fostering a perception of interconnectivity between the world and all of its nodes. 

 

Simply listing just a handful of recent and relevant buzz stories within a single sentence might just be the most important step in making sense and drawing analogy.  Here are but a few:  the United States Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision to uphold any local law enforcement agencies’ right to obtain warrantless DNA samples from all arrestees they hold for “serious” crimes; the reopening of an investigation into the alleged illegal, for-profit sale of guns by the LAPD’s SWAT and Special Investigations units; both of Los Angeles’ mayoral candidates espousing force-number expansion of the city’s police department; and the City of Angels’ recent hosting of the 2013 National Homeland Security Conference.  This week-long event was also bejeweled with a climactic Michael Bay-esque, made-for-Hollywood public training exercise undertaken by the LAPD's Counter Terrorism and Special Operations Bureau to demonstrate its "response to a weapon of mass destruction device" in the streets of downtown Los Angeles. 

 

This display was even replete with black-clad commandos fast roping from lowly hovering helicopters and actors portraying insurgents falling to the pavement after the echoing cracks of blank ammunition.  And, of course, there were hundreds of citizens and tourists playing the parts of audience and documentarian with their video-catching cellular devices.

           

Footage of coalition soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines in Afghanistan appearing to be taking photographed portraits of Afghan villagers might be a common image within American media.  However, these villagers are certainly not posing for Facebook.  They are head forward having their ocular fingerprints taken and subsequently entered into a biometrical database poised to collect the identities of every single Afghan citizen.  Ray Rivera, as far back as November 19, 2011, wrote on this matter in the New York Times to disclose that this biometrical data was being shared through an interconnected database to include those networks utilized by the Pentagon and the departments of Justice and Homeland Security. 

           

And now, pursuant to the Supreme Court’s ruling on DNA collection in June of this year, local law enforcement has free reign to import and domesticate the very brand the United States military and intelligence agencies have been producing abroad for over a decade.  Jennifer Lynch with Electronic Frontier Foundation, in that same November 19 piece, stated that, “the situation in Afghanistan is unprecedented, but I worry that we could move into that situation in the United States without even realizing we’re doing it.”

 

Culturally, are Americans already peering upwards from the base of a slippery slope?  Even the LAPD has delivered its training expertise to deploying United States Army and Marine Corps units.  Does this now work inversely as increasing levels of veteran employment within stateside law enforcement agencies persist?  It may appear that an entirely new paradigm has emerged wherein battlefield doctrine and practice have seamlessly conflated with your everyday neighborhood patrol.  The thin red line and the thin blue line are indistinguishable.

           

Although the Los Angeles Police Department was just relieved of its obligations to the federal government and the FBI in 2009 following years of oversight after being charged under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act in the late ‘90s subsequent to confirmed and repeated reports of brutality and the planting of evidence, it has found itself, again, under the FBI’s scrutinizing eye. 

Joel Rubin of the Los Angeles Times reported on May 24 of this year that the LAPD’s SWAT and Special Investigations units were under investigation themselves for potential violations of federal statutes in their continued purchasing of “large numbers of custom-made handguns and reselling them for profit...”  However, the specified actions in and of themselves do not seem as prescient when compared to threads tangential to this specific accusation.  For example, the whistle-blowing SWAT lieutenant who first discovered the unit’s gun accountability inconsistencies, according to the Los Angeles Times, filed a lawsuit this year “alleging that he has endured harassment and threats from other LAPD officers since drawing attention to the gun dealings.”

           

This breed of story being disclosed in the wake of Christopher Dorner’s “Last Resort” manifesto that achieved viral status on the Internet, television and AM dials, does not reflect well upon an institution with a half-century’s old reputation tarnished by its penchant for excessive use of force, internal use of intimidation against its own, and public use of rhetoric that has in the past compared portions of its city to Vietnam and the inhabitants of said portions to the Viet-Cong.  Dorner went so far as to designate civilians and police with the modern dialectical distinctions of non-combatant and combatant, a lexicon he sourced directly from his own experiences as both a cop and as a veteran of War on Terror battlefields.  Though Dorner’s grievances stemmed from his direct frustration with the LAPD and its continued practice of it behavior, his final tome was addressed to “America.”

           

So states The Commander’s Guide to Biometrics in Afghanistan that “Every person who lives within an operational area should be identified and fully biometrically enrolled with facial photos, iris scans, and all 10 fingerprints.”  Well, if the War on Terror is a borderless war, a war of ideas and war of competing symbolisms, as posited by prolific narrator of the post-9/11 epoch Paul Berman, is Los Angeles, and is the United States as a whole designated as an “operational area?” 

 

The LAPD’s Air Support Division’s mission statement clearly discloses on its website that its goal is to “reduce the incidence of crime and thus reduce the fear of crime.”  It is hard to dispute the division’s positive contributions to the reduction of violent crimes, arrest evasions, and bold acts of grand theft auto.  However, when a unit expresses that its abilities fall within the purview of fear reduction, it is hard to discount its visual and sonic presence in the skies above Los Angeles, and, more specifically, an institution being accused of the direct proliferation of handheld firearms.  It is as though the sounds of helicopters continuously buttress and evoke an acceptable level of fear.  The omnipresent whirring seemingly serving as a reminder to its citizens below of how much they think they need the mechanized angels above a city that eponymously titles itself.

The challenge is found in the fact that these events do not lend themselves as being directly threaded, but serve merely as yet connected nodes upon an expanding matrix.  In turn, they just might provide us with future answers to future questions about whether or not our opinions on what civic order and police power should look like can actually change what civility and power is and how it is portrayed and projected.  However, it guarantees to citizens that language, and the choice thereof, is stridently important.  For, if your police force is practicing “counterinsurgency” in your neighborhood, what is your classification and role?

 

Highbrow Magazine

 

Photos: Jason Epley (Wikipedia Commons); Shay Snowden (Wikipedia Commons); Travis Zielinski (Wikipedia Commons); Kevin Dean (Flickr).

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