The Nation | April 1992
When, in his State of the Union Message, President Bush said that we should support our local police and be tough on crime, I had my doubts. What kind of crime is he talking about and how tough is tough? Has anyone told him about the Los Angeles Police Department? Does he know that, contrary to the way our legal system is meant to operate, the L.A.P.D. assumes you’re guilty of whatever crime or misdemeanor you’re charged with and then treats you as such? Based on my personal experience, I am happy to report that the L.A.P.D. is more democratic than it is given credit for: Whether or not you are a black male felon, they treat you like scum. The difference, of course, is one of degree. As the police-misconduct referral lawyer whom I called to report the following incident said, “Imagine if you’d been black. It would’ve been worse.”
This is what happened: On the way to a dinner party, finding myself late and lost, I made an illegal ‘U-turn on Santa Monica Boulevard. Suddenly, a patrol car came zooming up behind me. The officer wrote up my ticket and checked my
record. He said I was going to be a lot more than late for dinner. There was a warrant out for my arrest. He was going to have to take me down to the station. Why, I wanted to know. The answer was, for a speeding ticket!
To backtrack, a couple of months ago, after moving to Los Angeles from New York Clty, I’d gotten a speeding ticket and paid $28 to go to (I kid you not!) “The World Famous Improv Traffic School,” a class taught by would-be comedians. I duly mailed in the certificate of completion to the D.M.V. They didn’t get It. I was never notified of that, or that a warrant had been issued for my arrest. I told the officer I could go home to get a receipt to prove my Innocence. He said he
couldn’t let me do that and radioed for help. “But I paid the ticket,” I said.
“You’ve got two choices,” he said. “I can move your car to a legal parking spot or you can leave it here and have it impounded.”
“Are you Joking?”
“No. I’m not.”
By this time his reinforcement had arrived, presumably to help handle me, which, had I been in a better mood, would have struck me as funny. The other cop was about 24, tall and very flt. He looked like a Marine. That cop explained to me that the older officer was serious. I had a convertible. In L.A., many people choose to have their convertibles impounded rather than risk leaving them on the streets like sitting ducks for car thieves.
“Park it,” I said, thinking I’d rather a thief make off with my car than pay the city that had spawned the L.A.P.D.
I gave the officer my keys and he drove off with my car. The young cop took away my bag and portfolio. “You’re going to have to put these on,” he said, as he produced a pair of handcuffs.
“No, please,” I said. “No one can ride In the back of my patrol car without wearing handcuffs,” he said. “It’s the law.”
I started to cry. I didn’t understand why he needed to handcuff me. I weigh in at 115 pounds and I’m a woman, and he was a man with a gun. It made no sense. How could I hurt him? “No need to get so upset, ma’am.’’
“Easy for you to say. Have you ever been handcuffed in the
back of a police car?” I asked.
“Yes, I’ve been to jail,” he said. “I’d rather not say what for.”
That silenced me. I felt like Alice in Wonderland mistakenly falling into a novel by Kafka. I was being taken to jail by a cop who’d been in jail himself. Was I safe with this policeman, I wondered. I’d heard a lot of stories about the L.A.P.D., none of them good. Rodney King had begged, too.
On the way to jail, the cop told me that my bail, with no previous offenses, would be $288. I asked if we could stop at a cash machine so that I could bail myself out. Then my friends wouldn’t have to come down to the station. “No, I
can’t do that,” he said.
At the jail, a sour-faced black woman jailer told me to put my hands up against the wall. She felt up and down my torso, the length of my bare legs, under my arms, the sides of my breasts. “You’re lucky you weren’t strip-searched,” she said. I wanted to throw up.
A burly (around 270 pounds), pink-faced, close-cropped cop went through the contents of my bag again (the woman jailer had already gone through them), itemized them and told me to take off my jewelry.
Fraser, the young cop who’d brought me in, opened up my actor’s picture portfolio, a thin black case. His eye lingered lasciviously on pictures of me dancing in a red dress from a David Lynch film I’d recently completed. I felt violated. What right had this man, who’d been in jail himself, to go through
my personal things? Why was I being treated like a dangerous criminal? I didn’t understand it. Trusting the U.S. Post Office to deliver my mail should not have landed me in jail.
I was led to a holding cell. The steel-barred door closed behind me. I was locked up for the first time in my life and I was scared. The cops obviously didn’t give a damn if I was innocent or guilty.
The pink-faced cop now acting as my jailer came and let me out and said that I was allowed three phone calls: Which numbers from my address book did I want? I asked for the telephone number of the friends at whose home I was expected for dinner. From behind his little bulletproof cubicle the big, brave police officer called them. As directed, I picked up the phone in the lobby.
I explained my situation to my friend Anna. I told her that I needed $288 bail, or she could come get my Citibank card and use it to get money to bail me out. After I hung up the phone, I was led back to my cell and locked in again. The cop hadn’t told me that I’d be taken back to the cell after one phone call. Had I known I was going to be put back in a cell, I would’ve made the other calls.
“Anna?” I said half an hour later, thinking I’d heard her voice around the corner (she was only a ten-minute drive away and should have arrived by then, I thought).
“What?” said the woman jailer, who’d come back to relieve the cop.
“I thought I heard my friends.”
“No one’s here. You’re hearing things,” said the woman,
“What’s your name?” I asked, hoping to befriend her.
“What’s your first name?”
“You don’t need to know that.”
“That’s not fair. You know my first name. How about telling me yours?”
“Life’s not fair,” she said
No one needs to tell me that, I thought. Look where I am. Up in smoke went any idea I had of trying to disarm her so she’d let me make another phone call. I thought of telling her that just because life was unfair didn’t mean you had to make it worse for people, but there was no point, I decided. She left, and the same beefy, pumped-up cop came back to replace her.
An hour later my friends still hadn’t come. I wondered where they were. I asked the jailer if I could make the other two phone calls.
“You talk too much.”
“I’ll stop talking if you let me make another phone call,” I said.
“I doubt it,” said the policeman. He said he was busy and would do it later, when he had time. He didn’t.
Eventually, my friends bailed me out. At the front of the police station, where I’d been escorted by the woman jailer, I saw Anna. We hugged each other. I was lucky, I thought, that she had the cash. We left. In the car I realized that the cops hadn’t returned my picture portfolio. My friend Ben accompanied me back to the station. I didn’t want-to go alone. While we waited, I saw a cash machine in the lobby and withdrew some money to pay Anna back.
Ben asked the cop at the front of the station if prisoners were allowed to bail themselves out. “Well, it’s up to the individual officer’s discretion,” said the cop. “But once I put handcuffs on someone, I don’t take them off. I mean, she doesn’t look dangerous,” he said, pointing at me, “but she could be.”
“How amazing,” said Ben after we stepped outside so he could smoke. “Presumably the cash machine’s there for a reason.” He told me that when he and Anna had come in, she’d asked the police officers where the nearest cash machine was. They’d said they didn’t know, yet there was one right in the
“They don’t make it easy for you,” he said.
“That’s for sure,” I agreed.
After making us wait half an hour, the woman jailer finally brought out my portfolio. We left and went to a bar. After a double shot of vodka, I finally began to feel better, especially when the guy sitting next to me said he’d gone to jail
for a jaywalking ticket. He’d spent the weekend there. Visions of my tiny, birdlike grandmother, a confirmed New Yorker, coming to visit me in L.A. and being arrested for jaywalking danced through my head. Why doesn’t the L.A.P.D. distinguish between people who have warrants out for their arrest for traffic violations and, say, murderers? Why can’t people, if they have the means, bail themselves out?
In the wake of the Rodney King beating, a lot of attention has been paid to the way the L.A.P.D. treats minorities. Well, their attitude toward other citizens isn’t much better. Daryl Gates, the man now proposing that he be allowed to help
choose his successor, prides himself on the democracy of the L.A.P.D., and he’s right, too. The tough-guy cops who will kick an unarmed man when he’s down make little distinction. They treat everyone, black or white, male or female, felon or no, as if they were worthless and guilty. If they don’t physically excoriate you, they do it verbally. I was treated with hostility by the cops who jailed me, and I’m white. So it isn’t simply a question of race. It’s also a question of attitude. Why do we permit the L.A.P.D. to behave the way it does? This is America, and in this country, so I was told, we have rights, among them, one would hope, the right not to be harassed, beaten or shot by our own police.
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