Morley Evans © April 14, 2005
RE: THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE
Date: Fri, 11 Mar 2005
If you were to but switch your TV to CNN anytime today, you would be engrossed in the Atlanta Courtroom Shooting that happened this morning. You will hear interviews with people who would tell you how the suspect held a courtroom hostage, killed three people, including the judge, and wounded many others before he escaped. You would see ambulances racing down the streets, police helicopters overhead, police cars and police motorcycles speeding hither and yon. The army hasn't been called in yet, I don't think, but I'm sure the Georgia National Guard is on full alert.
CNN will milk this for days, if not for weeks. I know Jerry Springer pays the freaks he displays on his freak show. I wonder if CNN pays criminals to create newsworthy events on those slow news days. Americans are very competitive. I'm sure they don't want to be upstaged by Canadians who just held one of the most grandiose police funerals ever staged anywhere: ten thousand of the deceased's closest friends and relatives were invited.
How could today's tragedy have happened in a courtroom in Atlanta, the quiet home of the beloved attorney, Matlock?
When I lived in Los Angeles for the year of 1988, I once went to the Compton County Courthouse in a "squad" of the Los Angeles County Facilities Police. They guard the buildings owned by the County of Los Angeles (the largest urban county in the United States). The "police interceptor" was equipped with battering rams, front and back, and with super heavy duty suspension, military grade tires and lots of horsepower. A 12 gauge pump shotgun with pistol grip was mounted vertically in the middle of the dashboard. My driver, like his car, was armed to the teeth. As we drove through quiet South Central, I observed that we were pretty safe. My driver replied, "You wouldn't want to come here after dark."
He went on to tell me about the Compton County Courthouse, our destination. The popular name is somewhat misleading. An outsider would assume the courthouse is in the County of Compton. There is no such place. The courthouse is in the County of Los Angeles in the City of Compton which is in the South Central area of the County. The City of Los Angeles is but one of over one hundred cities in L.A. County (with cities ranging in size from LA at 3,700,000 to Vernon with 120 people). LA County has almost 10 million people (without counting illegal aliens).
Is that clear?
My driver went on to tell me this amusing story:
When LA County built the courthouse in the early seventies, it stood out because it was the tallest structure in the area. (It still is.) The Courthouse is a fifteen or twenty storey glass box in an area of one and two storey houses and shops. Some rascal in the neighbourhood apparently didn't appreciate the architecture, or something, so he began shooting at the windows after the building was completed. The police investigated the shootings each time there was a rash of them, but they never solved the mystery. This went on for years. Then one quiet day, a judge was sitting in his chambers reading something at his desk when a bullet whizzed past his nose and lodged in the wall across the room. The judge was upset. He picked up the phone and dialed the direct line to one of the Supervisors of the County of Los Angeles.
Someone who knows nothing about the structure of American municipal government should know that the County of Los Angeles (the largest urban county in the United States) has five Supervisors. While they are elected, they have both Executive and Legislative powers which means these five people are pretty goddamn powerful. There is no one else, no legislature. The Supervisors don't take orders, they give them.
The judge was incensed. He raised Hell and put a prop under it. (Judges are powerful too.) He demanded that something be done to fix the sniper problem AND RIGHT NOW OR ELSE!
So it was done. The County installed bullet proof glass on the entire west side of the building. Apparently, the sniper gave up. Perhaps he lived on the west side of the Compton County Courthouse and couldn't move to the east side. See? Technology can solve every problem.
I won't go on all day (but I certainly could). When the two of us arrived at the Compton County Courthouse we drove into the parking garage. To get into the parking garage, we had to pass several checkpoints manned by armed uniformed officers. No, these were not County of Los Angeles Sheriff's Deputies. Nor were they County of Los Angeles Facilities Police. There were certainly not City of Los Angeles Police Department officers either. ( We are in the County here not in the City, remember?) They weren't U.S. Federal Marshals either; they guard federal courtrooms and prisoners.
They weren't with the FBI either. Nor were they with California Highway Patrol, the CIA, the INS, the DEA, the ATF, the LA Transit Police, or any of the other police forces operating at any moment in Los Angeles.
No, these armed officers were contract "peace officers" who worked for Pinkertons or Wackenhut, or some such private investigation company. (That's P.I. to you, but they are not detectives.) These officers are something like the Legionnaires in Canada except they aren't retirees, they carry guns, and they can shoot you if you get out of line.
We are almost at the end of my story, so hang on.
To get into the Compton County Courthouse we had to get past all these armed guards (everyone has guns and who knows what else). Then we had to pass through a metal detector and get past another armed guard. (Remember my tour guide is an armed uniformed officer. But even he couldn't just walk in.) Once inside, we walked down a long hall to the elevators. We took a ride up to one of the upper floors where some courtrooms were to be found. Then we walked a short distance to the entrance of a courtroom where we found another metal detector and another uniformed contract "peace officer" who showed us a big cardboard box containing the weapons she had confiscated that morning.
It was full: handguns, shotguns, machetes, hunting knives, brass knuckles, machine gun, chain saw .
I found this all quite amusing, but I bit my tongue. (Were they putting me on? How could anyone get this far with weapons and, if they did, why would they surrender them to this lightly armed small woman?) Everyone was dead serious.
We may return one day to my inspection of several County welfare offices and the Los Angeles Convention Center. . .
P.S. Here are some interesting facts:
1). Why do they have a County of Los Angeles Facilities Police? I was told by a County official that one day, years ago, there was a riot outside the County of Los Angeles Hall of Administration (Which is like the town hall for the county and which is just down the street from the Los Angeles City Hall.) They phoned the LAPD. No one came.
2). The Sheriff of the County of Los Angeles runs the largest jail in the United States. Jails, like Rikers Island in New York, are the jurisdiction of counties. They are separate from State penitentiaries, like Folsom Prison near San Francisco, Attica and others in New York State, or federal prisons like Leavenworth, Kansas. Counties also are responsible for all the courthouses, criminal justice, welfare, public health, emergency services and more.
3). Many cities, like Bevery Hills, have their own police departments. Urban areas across the street, like West Hollywood, are the jurisdiction of the County and are policed by sheriff's deputies. There are sometimes disagreements and confusing situations. A few years ago, I was told, there was a shootout between officers of the LAPD and sherrif's deputies somewhere in Long Beach. (Check your map.)
4). Browsing their websites, you might notice that the County seems more relaxed than the City. Somehow it is. Yet it is the same place, Los Angeles. There is a difference in organizational culture: the City police department is very militaristic (but was not the sole creation of Chief Darrel Gates), the Sheriff (who was Sherman Block for fifty years, or so) seems to have been watching Andy Griffith.
5). Everyone knows about the LAPD because Jack Webb made it famous with the TV series DRAGNET.
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