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Viewpoint by Leonard Pitts Jr.: Don't ask, don't tell when it comes to police work

March 21, 2002

A word of advice. If, menaced by a crazed mugger, you call 911 and Detective Vic Mackey responds, take your chances with the mugger. Because Vic is a loose shutter banging in a high wind.

Some of us made his acquaintance earlier this week, watching "The Shield," the new cop drama on FX. Also, I think, the best drama anywhere since "The Sopranos."

It's probably not coincidental that the former show echoes the moral ambiguity of the latter. Indeed, Mackey is nothing so much as Tony Soprano with a badge — a cop who's as bad as or worse than the lowlifes he chases through a grimy Los Angeles precinct. He is nasty, brutal and corrupt.

Trouble is, he's also effective. Not despite his methods, but because of them.

As such, he raises awful questions civilized people don't like to ponder. Questions that trouble your sleep whenever some pedophile or killer skips free because of some technicality of law or violation of civil rights. Questions about the perceived impotence of the rules.


Consider a scene in that first episode where Mackey's commanding officer complains about him to a detective, comparing him to Al Capone. The detective points out that Capone made his money by giving people what they wanted.

"What people want these days," she says, "is to make it to their cars without getting mugged. Come home from work, see their stereo is still there. Hear about some murder in the barrio, find out the next day the police caught the guy. If having all those things means some cop roughs up some n——- or some s—- in the ghetto, well, as far as most people are concerned, it's don't ask, don't tell."

The precinct commander, you should know, is Hispanic. The detective, African-American.

And I suspect the thought, coarsely expressed though it is, echoes the secret sentiment of a significant number of Caucasian Americans and maybe no small number of middle-class black and Latino ones. Indeed, it probably finds resonance everywhere except in those poverty-blasted neighborhoods where struggling people find themselves twice besieged, first by the crooks and then by at least some of the cops.

Many in middle America are just not interested in hearing about cops who are rogue, cops who are racist, cops who play judge, jury, and, sometimes, executioner in the halo of a street light. Even when it's corroborated by the evening news. Even when police in New York are discovered to have sodomized an innocent man with a stick. Even when 13 Miami police stand accused of having planted weapons and lied to cover up questionable shootings. Even when a gang of Los Angeles police is found to have done much the same thing.

As we've seen for the umpteenth time in recent days, it invariably becomes a hot municipal issue. You get hearings like those headed last week by Reps. Carrie Meek and John Conyers to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by Miami cops. But police malfeasance never seems to rise beyond local fury to urgent national dialogue. We see it happen in New York, see it happen in Washington, L.A., Miami and a hundred other American cities. But nobody connects the dots. Nobody wants to concede that we have a national problem here.

Don't ask, don't tell.

Makes you wonder where Joe Friday is, now that we need him. Those of you of a certain age will remember Sgt. Friday as the iconic TV cop of the '60s, a straitlaced, square-edged fellow who expected, as we did, that law would bring order. When streetwise Tony Baretta began patrolling the streets in the '70s, that notion had come to seem quaint. When Frank Furillo took command of Hill Street station in the '80s, it was under siege. And by the time Andy Sipowicz began policing the streets in the '90s it was in full retreat and there was little police could do but fight a desperate rearguard action.

Now there's Vic Mackey, of whom it is perhaps sufficient to say Joe Friday would never recognize him as a police officer. And too many of us would.

If series television reflects what we want and expect from police — and I think at some level it does — this guy ought to give us pause.

The question he confronts us with is this: What do we gain by tolerating him, by looking the other way because his methods get results? And how does that balance against the things we lose? Meaning the integrity of law enforcement and the respect of all the people they protect and serve.

Is it really too much to expect the enforcers of the law to be also its keepers? God help us if it is.

The thin blue line gets thinner all the time.

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