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Wednesday, 22 November 2006 00:00

Going after the good guys

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The fine line between a cop doing one’s duty or overdoing his duty is once again in the grip of Monday morning quarterbacks to judge. Meanwhile, a pair of police careers are on the line.

 

Two Los Angeles cops are being investigated by federal authorities for their conduct in the arrest of a wanted felon back in August of this year. After running from police, the thief was taken to the ground. As the cops tried to restrain him, it appears he resisted. It also appears he was a formidable foe.

A bystander’s video depicted one officer punching the man in the face while his arms were being held. The amateur video showed up on YouTube.com and then found its way into major newspapers and, of course, network television for all to decry.

Turns out, the suspect, William Cardenas, 24, is an alleged member of an L.A. gang with a past record for attempted murder and carrying a concealed weapon. And now, the watch dogs want the cops jailed.

In my 30 years on the job in Miami-Dade, I was never accused of brutality. In truth, I was less physically adept than many of my comrades and knew my limitations. But there was one incident which, if videotaped today, would probably have landed me in the midst of a similar brouhaha.

We had just arrested Big Tony Esperti for a Mafia killing at a Miami Beach night club. Esperti was well known in crime circles, big and mean, a former heavyweight boxer who once lost to Cassius Clay and a known killer. At 245 pounds, he towered and powered over me and my partners.

Upon advice of his mob lawyer, Esperti refused our request to let us swab his hands for gunpowder. We had the law on our side, so we decided to use whatever force was necessary. He resisted. The brute threw the three of us around like rag dolls. My partners grabbed his arms and took him to the floor where he wrestled us all. We were about to lose this fight. Not only that, we feared Esperti escaping. Adrenalin surged. We, the cops, were afraid.

In a moment when the other detectives were on the floor grappling with his arms, sweating, panting, I stood up and kicked him in the testicles. How’s that for a mea culpa? Then I leaned with all of my 180 pounds into his groin with bended knee. Voila, the job got done. Esperti instantly turned pussycat. His hand yielded a flake of fresh gunpowder.

Good thing YouTube.com and CNN wasn’t around then. My police career would have ended, and all the good I ever did for many years would have gone for naught.

Such is the case that these two officers are now facing. I watched the video with interest. Clearly, Cardenas was a tough and rugged young man who elected to resist once he was taken to the ground. Cardenas had powerful arms, which presented a daunting task to the two cops trying to restrain him lest they be injured in the fray. Cops are ever aware that their firearm is a tempting lure to such nutcakes in a fighting situation. When the one officer saw that the grappling effort was going nowhere, he reared back and punched the felon in the face, in an attempt to subdue. From everything I saw, it was totally justified, and the media is dead wrong for replaying the video over and over and over again, as though they were airplanes ramming the World Trade Center, in order to create controversy and sway public opinion.

Police Chief William Bratton said he that found the video “disturbing” but stressed that the 20-second clip amounts to only a fraction of what transpired.

The Los Angeles Times since reported that a Superior Court commissioner viewed the video nearly two months ago, heard the officers’ testimony and concluded their conduct was “more than reasonable” because Cardenas was resisting.

The trends are frightening. More than ever, police officers in the U.S. are becoming the targets of federal investigations in order to grease the squeaky wheel, particularly where minorities are involved.

Stephanie Mohr was a decorated K-9 officer for the Prince George’s County P.D. One night, she was called to a scene where two illegal aliens were caught at 1 a.m. atop an office building. As the two thieves were surrounded at ground level, she claims it appeared one of the Guatemalans made a move as if to start running. She released the dog. The thief was bitten.

Prosecutors said it wasn’t justified. One cop, in need of a special favor, turned state’s evidence and testified against the female cop. The feds went after her with a vengeance, claiming she was a bigot and released the dog for folly. It took two trials. The devoted mother of a small boy is now spending 10 years of her life in a federal prison ... for a dog bite.

It’s out of hand. The numbers of incidents of good police officers who have become targets on the federal firing line are too many to list in one short article. The trend is clear: Cops represent a prosecutor’s plum in cases where a fine line exists between performing a duty or committing a crime.

Not a blind defender of wayward officers, I’ll be the first who will lambast brutal or crooked cops. The last arrest I ever made was that of five other police officers who had beaten a man to death. No regrets.

But it’s a national disgrace when drug smugglers, crooks, rats and social parasites are coddled while civil heros are buried away in prison cells in order to satisfy a vocal minority. Police officers today are ever wary, not of criminals but of the convoluted legal system they work within. In confrontation situations, who can blame them when — given an option — it’s more prudent to do nothing rather than face the standing army of condemnation. And in the long run, it’s we, the citizens, who lose.

And we wonder why thousands of police departments have such a hard time recruiting. Voracious prosecutors and sensational media should heed a message: When a nation turns on its protectors, so goes the nation.

(Marshall Frank is a retired Miami Dade homicide detective and writer. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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