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The very nature of the police's job should earn more consistent praise, but at the same time it demands monitoring.

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"Hi, I just sat down for lunch and read the Volume 23, Number 15, December 12, 2003, ... cover story about 'Something Went Wrong,' and I just thought I'd let you know that I'm going to pick up every copy that I can find of The Austin Chronicle and throw it in the garbage.

"I'm going to make it a point to drive all over town; whenever I stop and I see it I'm going to pick them up and throw it in the frigging garbage.

"The story that you've printed by Jordan Smith is the most ignorant fucking article I've ever read in my life.

"By the way, no mention of ...

"But you took every length you could to state opinion, stating them as fact and it's just a total distortion.

"I hope you guys rot in fucking hell."

Monday morning, Dec. 15, my first phone message -- no name, no contact number, no follow-up letter so you, the readers, could consider another point of view on Smith's story. Nope, just the assumption that information is dangerous, that anything done to wipe out opinion contrary to one's own is legitimate, that premeditated, illegal destruction of property defends the rights of those entrusted with upholding the law.

The "by the way" section, which I didn't include above, offered what has sadly become a too-classic defense at the accusation of police misconduct, rumored background information that the officer could not have known at the time used as a justification for whatever actions occurred. This is beyond pathetic.

Here at the Chronicle, we sign our pieces and have a staff box that lists all staff. We don't leave anonymous messages, offer unattributed pieces, or physically destroy the work of those with whom we disagree.

Smith's article is significantly mischaracterized and her appreciative understanding of the difficult role of the police disregarded. Ignored is the troubling story that Smith is actually telling -- that of a mother overwhelmed by the death of her son, trying to find out exactly what happened. Instead, she discovers herself trapped in the fogged-over swamp of a police-shooting situation -- incidents so polarizing and potentially explosive that defining the actual details of what happened is the last concern of any of the groups involved. Rather, all involved are far busier positioning their groups and promoting their ongoing issues.

Unfortunately this defensive/aggressive reaction makes too much sense. All sides have vested, contradictory interests and valid but often-conflicting concerns.

Some African-American community leaders assume every police-violence incident is unjustified, and probably inherently racist. These reactions reflect their sense of the community's perception of the police but also muddy the waters. If almost every such case is attacked with the same outraged accusations, the line between acceptable police actions and condemnable overreactions is more than blurred.

As with the above phone call, some steadfastly regard any police action as legitimate, which is just as, if not even more, counterproductive. Assuming that actions such as a police-shooting death shouldn't have to be defended, and then using any information at hand to further that cause, is outrageous. The police, out of all of us, should not be considered above the law. These knee-jerk justifications perpetuate disenfranchised communities' sense of persecution while compounding the difficulty of making any decision as to the actions' lawfulness.

The police already feel aggressively misunderstood. The pressure they are under, the all-too-real possibility that they face aggressive violence, and the instant judgment calls they must constantly make seem to be discounted in an outrageous incident's wake. Often, these situations are pictured as though the cops were out strolling the beach when they decided to pull their guns and start shooting. Consequently, even the most cursory inquest finds them almost aggressively defensive. But at least Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield articulates a clear position, offering details and explanations.

The great problem here is the ever-ongoing political calculation of the police department's top brass, seemingly so lost in strategizing that it fails to take the lead on or accept any responsibility for such incidents. The city's political leadership, though masters of the concerned sound bite, are just as often missing in action as well.

end story

I'm very pro-police. I get it. Americans take the police for granted in the same way most of us neither want to pay for the level of government we demand nor begin to appreciate all that we currently get from government. The police come up on our radar when they stop us for anything or they are involved in some incident that attracts the attention of media. I wake up in the morning, my family and myself safe; I drive on relatively safe roads, my kid goes to school, we shop, we visit, we go out, we deposit checks, take money out of the bank, and very rarely notice the police. It is even more rare that we have any interactions with them. This is because they are so damn good at what they do. What is not happening is almost impossible to notice; years of comfort and protection do not defuse someone's anger at a speeding ticket.

Some folks' blind, unquestioning support for almost any police action is very troubling. As extraordinary a job as they do, under pressures incomprehensible to most of us, they are the thin blue line. The very nature of their job should earn more consistent praise, but at the same time it demands monitoring. Without restraint or review, a very, very few bad cops can pollute the barrel.

It is equally incomprehensible that people who feel some murderous thug should be given understanding because of a horrible childhood and a disadvantaged upbringing can't bring themselves to appreciate the consequences of -- imagine, just somewhat -- the pressure and intensity that cops are under so much of the time.

Conservatives often overly protect cops because they love them too much; fearing segments of our society, they're relieved these armed gladiators are there to control them. Some leftists seem embarrassed by the protection, so while they enjoy the world it allows them, they ignore it when demanding police accountability. Back in the late Sixties, many "revolutionaries" I knew took to calling cops "pigs." Most of them were middle- or upper-class kids who would eventually trade long hair and aggressive political beliefs for upwardly mobile jobs. Most of the cops were from the lower- or middle-working class. Even then, there was something obviously wrong about this dynamic.

My experiences with cops have been consistently good. Even when I had very long hair, this was true. True in far northern rural New Hampshire, less than an hour after we had draped red strike-fist posters over the fence around a small town's John Birch Society "graveyard" -- with each Communist country marked by a cross -- and in the Deep South when our car broke down. Cops have helped me out, given me rides, offered directions when I was lost, and saved my life when the weather turned too quickly. Sure, I've heard of cops doing horrible things. I've watched tactical-police-force members club protesters and bully marchers. But in my life, there is no comparison between their positive and negative.

The Chronicle is media here. We're not a newspaper, an objective journal, the truth, or the burning word, but we are media. As much as cops deserve to be honored more than they are, as much as we owe them in ways many people don't even think about, our obligation is to monitor and report on them. We don't understand the pressures they're under or always appreciate their ways, but even deep respect for them doesn't privilege that over any action.

It is so great to work with Jordan Smith because she likes cops and she gets them. She calls them on things she thinks need to be called, but she knows when they're just doing their job and that's not necessary.

Good news not only doesn't sell papers, it's ridiculous to report. A cop-of-the-week feature would insult the cop. When things go right -- when their presence, training, and smarts keep things on an even keel -- there is no story. When things are tenser than that, when they calm down a crazed husband or arrest a thief or prevent a robbery, there's rarely a story. Too often the only story is when things go wrong, so it seems the media is out to get them. We're not. This guy leaves no name, says he's going to throw Chronicles away, and hopes we rot in hell. Ah, well, 'tis the season.

end story

Currently, there is a political storm over lawyer Jan Soifer, seeking the Democratic nomination for the 200th District Court seat. The charge is that her law firm, Locke Liddell, represented the state in 2001 in a number of legal conflicts resulting from -- as Amy Smith noted in our Dec. 5 issue ("A 'Real Personal' Court Race," News) -- "the legislative Redistricting Board's redrawn state House and Senate district maps. ... Soifer worked with prominent Republican lawyer Andy Taylor on the case. ... Billing records show ... [she] spent 91 days working on 12 of the 16 redistricting matters."

Being surprised at any political maneuver is beyond naive, but blaming a lawyer for what her firm does, or indicting one for their involvement in a case without detailing specifics, is beyond disingenuous. Any case like this involves citing precedents and strategically highlighting points of law. It's a pretty safe bet that Soifer's role was as a lawyer, rather than a gerrymandering, disenfranchising mapping specialist. Within reason, in fact, the notion that lawyers should pick and choose every case by base political terms -- avoiding cases that might haunt them if they want to run for office -- is not only despicable but also probably formally unethical.

Glen Maxey almost specifically blames Soifer as a partner in his defeat. Our affection for Maxey, as well as appreciation of his legislative performance, is a matter of record. But we'd be as shocked to find that Maxey's expressed moral outrage had more to do with political advocacy (discrediting an opponent of his favored candidate -- in this case, County Court-at-Law Judge Gisela Triana) as we'd be to find out there was gambling going on at Rick's. end story

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

police oversight, Jessie Lee Owens Jr., Scott Glasgow, police reporting, police shooting, Jordan Smith, Glen Maxey, Gisela Triana, Jan Soifer, redistricting, Locke Liddell, Amy Smith

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