Friday, April 20, 2012

Joseph Wambaugh: The Onion Field


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In 1963 two career crappy criminals kidnapped two good cops, killing one and leaving the other a ruined man. The case led decades of judicial shenanigans, and surely cost the state of California millions of dollars. Although I had never heard of "The Onion Field" until I read "Popular Crime" the story seems well known, and almost everyone I mention this book to has read it. Joseph Wambaugh wrote the book in 1973, using transcripts of the many many trials, interviews, and an unpublished autobiography of one of the suspects/perpetrators/killers (who recently died in prison). The other suspect/perpetrator/killer (both confessed and have been found guilty multiple times) is still alive in prison, 50 years later.

There's a lot going on here, besides that the book is extremely readable and depressing, even, I imagine, if you were already familiar with the story. (Have I ever mentioned that themacinator sat through the entire "Apollo 13" movie without knowing that it was a true story and that it was common knowledge that the astronauts survived? themacinator still cannot watch anything having to do with space...) One of the things that struck me was the way that the Los Angeles police department dealt with the surviving officer after the event. The officer was back to work within days of being kidnapped, emotionally tortured, watching his partner get murdered, and then chased around the eponymous onion field by a sociopath. He was not given psychological counseling. Rather, a policy was immediately issued that in essence said he was responsible for his partner's death: under no circumstances was an officer to give up his gun. The surviving officer was made to tell his story in line-up after line-up where officer could question him, basically a trial by his peers, and then his commanders released the damning order: against all evidence to the contrary, LAPD officers were to fight to the death, rather than assess the situation and give up their weapons as the two young officers had done.

As the book was published in 1973, I'm not sure if this is still the case in Los Angeles, but I believe that there are two things that have carried over: denying the psychological impact of police work and stressing the macho way out at all costs. I've discussed this before in the context of compassion fatigue in animal welfare, and when I worked in animal control, I worked at the intersection of animal welfare and law enforcement, but I would never claim to know anything about doing police work as such. What I do know is that I'm not familiar with any agency that "takes care of" its officers psychologically in an appropriate way, from animal control officers to SWAT teams. You can see this in Oakland, but I want to make clear that I am *not* condoning any of these incidents. Colorlines has done some amazing reporting about police involved shootings in Oakland, including their relationship to the Lovelle Mixon shooting of four officers. One of the things that strikes me about this kind of violence on the part of the police is the lack of institutional modernity when it comes to police officers. Maybe we can excuse LAPD in 1963 for allowing an officer to go back to work after the incident in the onion field and then coming up with a cowboy policy to blame him, but in the mid- to late- 2000s in the Colorlines article, I don't see any kind of excuse. When a police officer is involved in serious incidents, whether it's being involved in a situation that requires him to pull his gun and shoot someone or arriving on the scene of a mass murder like at Oikos, the department owes the individual officer and the community where he works a modern approach.

"The Onion Field" is a great read, and moving, I imagine for anyone, even who has never worn a uniform or met a police officer. The story is told with interludes from a "gardener" who turns out to be the shattered surviving officer, as well as from the point of view of each of the two criminals and each of the two cops as well a sort of birds-eye view of the events. It's easy to dismiss each of the crappy criminals as "ne'er-do-wells," but it's much harder, at least for me, to see the cops outside of the system that I've talked about above. The case turns into years and years of judicial morass that also takes down at least two lawyers caught in the madness of the criminals. The police officer, a witness, is completely without support, and too ensconced in the ideology of police officer as "tough guy" to ask for it or accept it when offered by his friends. I watch as the Occupy Oakland movement demonizes the police force, and can't help but see both sides of this: sure, the police have done some really awful things (again, I am not condoning the kinds of actions that I've seen them do), but I am also disturbed by the black and white approach of Occupy. Individual police officers have to do things that few other people would sign up for, day after day, with little institutional support. There is no excuse for bad behavior, but there is also no excuse for "The Department" to leave their officers out to dry, as in the case of "The Onion Field" and what we continue to see today.

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