Fuhrman Makes It Hard For Good Cops Across Nation, Officers Condemn Content Of Tapes
It’s not that most police haven’t heard racist language escape a colleague’s lips or watched a cop cross the line while subduing a violent suspect. But officers around the country said Wednesday that they’ve encountered nothing like the venom or rule-breaking that former Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman discussed on tapes played at the O.J. Simpson trial.
“I’ve been doing this for 28 years, so I’m not naive about what goes on,” said Ed Sanders, a motorcycle policeman who used to work out with Fuhrman at a gym near their West Los Angeles station. “Let me tell you, though, it just doesn’t happen much at all, and it’s getting better, not worse. I just can’t believe Mark meant what he said, except maybe as material for a script.”
Sgt. Mike Peters of the Houston police homicide department echoed that assessment, even as he reflected the dominant sentiments that Fuhrman’s comments sparked among law enforcement officers nationally: anger and exasperation.
“I’m trying to say this without cussing; the guy is a world-class jerk,” said Peters. “It’s just going to ruin it for us with all the juries and the judges. They’re all going to paint us with a little bit of that brush that they paint Fuhrman with. This guy’s really damaged us.”
By contrast, many black officers said the attitudes attributed to Fuhrman were neither surprising nor exceptional. Some expressed concern that many in the Los Angeles police department, including top commanders, were deluding themselves that racist and sexist beliefs and practices were an aberration.
“I know there are other people like Fuhrman in the department,” said Sgt. Leonard Ross, a 21-year veteran who is president of the Oscar Joel Bryant Foundation, an independent group that represents about 500 black officers. “I’ve worked with them; I’ve heard them use the same racial epithets, I’ve heard them espouse some of the same views,”
Another black officer, Sgt. Michael Jackson, who has been on the police force for 29 years, said: “I wasn’t surprised to hear that stuff. The only thing that surprised me is that he would be caught saying those things on tape.”
The Fuhrman tapes - on which a would-be screenwriter interviewed the former detective about police views and behavior - sent the Simpson trial into a tailspin this week. Fuhrman’s remarks were so venomous and provocative that analysts said the odds of Simpson being acquitted would soar if Judge Lance Ito lets the jury hear significant portions of the tapes.
Ito’s ruling, which could become the most important one of this case, is expected as early as Thursday. Ito indicated he would allow the defense to present at least some of the tapes, on which Fuhrman repeatedly uses racist epithets, describes suspects and even fellow officers in profane terms and alleges that police regularly abuse suspects, tamper with evidence and lie to protect each other.
Whatever those comments’ ultimate effect on the trial, they already have begun taking their toll outside the courthouse by straining relations between minorities and police in this city already aching with racial tensions, as well as provoking angstfilled discussions about police attitudes and methods everywhere.
“Our concern is that inevitably, and unjustifiably, some people will make the connection between those reprehensible, shocking remarks and the work of our … officers in Chicago and in cities elsewhere in the country,” said Paul C. Jenkins, a spokesman for the Chicago Police Department.
Miami Police Chief Donald H. Warshaw said Fuhrman’s comments have been “the topic of discussion all day” on his force. He acknowledged that some officers “venture away” from the ethics they’re taught, but he stressed that questionable behavior is punished. He cautioned that the consequences of rogue actions such as those suggested by Fuhrman can be high.
“The badge is a very powerful thing,” Warshaw said. “If you couple the power of the badge with an attitude like that, you have a very dangerous situation.”
In Los Angeles, at least, that is just what law-enforcement officials fear, largely because they had such a jarring experience in the wake of the police beating of Rodney King. Most city leaders, and many members of the minority community, had argued that a repeat of the rioting was unlikely regardless of the Simpson verdict because most blacks could identify with King’s experience but not with that of a wealthy, famous football legend.
Most officers and police officials approached to discuss Fuhrman - in Los Angeles, Boston and other cities - refused to comment at all, and many spoke only on condition that they not be named.
“Most people would never know what Fuhrman said or did or anything else if you people didn’t insist on publishing every damning thing you can about us,” said one sergeant here.
Pressed for a comment about Fuhrman, he said: “Look, some infractions happen, OK? Some cops are bigots, OK? But we’re not like Fuhrman said we are.”
Some officers in other cities suggested that Los Angeles could be an anomaly: With volatile conditions and poor past management of its police department, actions like those described by Fuhrman might have taken place. The new police chief here, Willie Williams, has promised to root out racism and misconduct, has lambasted Fuhrman in strong terms and has launched an internal investigation into the former detective’s charges.
But a few officers, here and elsewhere, acknowledged that surveys show blacks distrust the police because of harassment and other negative experiences. “This is something that could happen any place,” said Ronald Hollins, a black officer with San Francisco’s force for 13 years.