November 18, 2018

Changing Three Cultures: A Q&A with Joe Domanick

We all feel awful about last week’s violence; we all wonder what can be done. Well, author and investigative journalist Joe Domanick has been feeling awful about police conduct and urban violence for decades. 

When I called Domanick to ask him to write about the tragedies that unfolded last week in Minnesota; Baton Rouge, La.; and Dallas, he said he couldn’t.

“Even though I knew I had things to say that most people don’t know, I have said it so many times that it just rang hollow to me,” Domanick said. “I guess I just shook my head and said, ‘Oh, not again.’ ” 

In a series of seminal articles and books, the Queens, N.Y.-raised Domanick has studied the failure of American police forces, largely by focusing on the cops in his adopted city, Los Angeles.  

Domanick began his career 30 years ago at the Jewish Journal — really. He wrote the first issue’s cover story on school integration and busing, but passed on a promotion partly because he didn’t think an Italian Catholic should be editing a Jewish paper.

Currently, Domanick is the associate director of New York’s John Jay College’s Center on Media Crime, and West Coast bureau chief of The Crime Report. He’s written two books about the LAPD: “To Protect and to Serve” and “Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing,” out in paperback this August.  

When current LAPD Chief Charlie Beck read Domanick’s 1994 history of the LAPD, “To Protect and to Serve,” he told the author it was like reading an angry letter from his first wife — but Beck took the book to heart. 

“At least that’s what he tells me,” Domanick said. 

In his latest book, “Blue,” Domanick charts how the LAPD has changed — how one of the country’s worst and most divisive forces has gone from being an “occupying force” in minority neighborhoods to a partner in building community. 

I wondered how those lessons can apply to forces nationwide, and asked Domanick to explain how to untangle the knot of urban and police violence that all too often sends us all into anguish.

Rob Eshman: What was your reaction as the events of last week unfolded?

Joe Domanick: I wasn’t at all surprised about either one of the two killings by the officers, because [each is] just one of the string of shootings that have come to public attention, really, ever since Ferguson [Mo.], because of cameras and other technologies.

And then when the five officers were killed in Dallas, that made me very anxious because, No. 1, we had a chief of police in Dallas who was really doing all of the right things to alleviate these kinds of situations.  

RE: You’ve said there were 900 officer-involved shootings that led to fatalities in 2015, and 2016 is on track to have even more. Why? Iceland has one in 71 years. Germany has six.

JD: An even better comparison is Canada, which per capita has more guns than the United States, but has very few shootings. 

I just think that America is a very, very violent country. It was born in violence. It started with genocide. Then it followed up with the most brutal, dehumanizing kind of slavery, which was enforced strictly through brutality. Then you had the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, when it really became the job of the police to closely monitor African-Americans, and that became a tradition. And the whole country, of course, was racist —  it wasn’t just the South.

So I think that this is a very violent country. We worship violence. We see it everywhere in our advertisements. It’s hard for me to think of a movie star, man or woman, who I haven’t seen on a billboard off Sunset Boulevard holding a gun, holding a .45, wearing a police badge. So I think that we worship violence, we do, and I think that’s a big part of it.

REYou really can draw a direct connection from the Fugitive Slave Law to what’s going on now in these communities?

JD: You had decades of people living in very violent communities, and the violence becoming almost a norm. And the African-American people that could get out of the ghettos got out, but what you had left was a kind of social pathology that imploded. That’s what’s made our ghettos so dangerous. We refuse as a society to do anything about it, to take the steps to alleviate, to change the values in that subculture.

RE: Like what?

JD: Well, there’s so much that can be done. One thing that can be done is community policing, which Charlie Beck is trying to do, and good police chiefs like the one in Dallas are trying to do, which represents an entire change. 

The other thing is just the old liberal bromides, which happen to be true. You’ve got to put money into these communities. You’ve got to get the best schools and health care. All these things have to be done, and then you have to understand it is not going to change overnight. 

RE: A lot of people say that the focus on acts of police violence obscures the greater problem, which is Black-on-Black crime in places like Chicago, which leads to many more deaths.

JD: We keep hearing people say we have to have a conversation about race, but you notice that we never really have. My supposition is that we don’t have it because liberals and many African-American leaders don’t want that to be a subject of conversation, because it’s further stigmatizing an already stigmatized people. 

You have such a strong, vital African-American middle class and working class right now. So they’re trying to get out from under that stigma. But, at the same time, there is this rage at the police because the police have always, always, always screwed them over. And you have this inherent racism, and that exists in most white people in this country. It’s a difficult thing to get rid of.

What you need is to change three cultures. You need to change police culture. You need to change the value system that exists among these young Black guys in these communities — many of whom can’t even conceptualize a way out. It’s intra-tribal violence — powerless people warring with other powerless people, a rage turned inward on itself. 

And you need a change in the white culture. I would say that this generation, 35 and under, they get it. I think they are much more multicultural, much less tolerant of any kind of racism or sexism or ethnic prejudice. The coverage of Ferguson and then of Eric Garner [who died in police custody in 2014 in New York] and all the other shootings and killings that happened were amazing to me because it was so critical of the police — a far cry from the ’80s and ’90s. 

RE: So you agree with what Newt Gingrich said, that white people “don’t understand being Black in America.”

JD: Absolutely. White people tend to think that because of the Civil Rights Acts of 1963 and ’64, African-Americans suddenly had equal opportunities, and centuries of cultural degradation and extreme disadvantage would disappear overnight. The attitude was: “What more do they want from us?” Most white Americans have no idea of the killing nature of the Black experience. They really don’t.

Take Jewish Americans — sure there was anti-Semitism against Jews. There was discrimination against the Irish, the Italians, Mexicans and against the Japanese and Chinese. But I would argue that it’s nothing compared to what has been done to African-Americans.

They feel hurt and they feel enraged. If people would just read history and understand sociology and anthropology, they’d understand it. 

RE: Then why were there no riots in L.A. last week? 

JD:  Because I think the Los Angeles Police Department has done a good job of changing its culture and behavior. LAPD’s Charlie Beck has been working hard on that. 

He’s really built on all of the good things that [former LAPD Chief William] Bratton started, but he hasn’t changed one of the things that Bratton brought, which was an increase at stop-and-frisks. 

The one thing that the LAPD is still challenged by is the amount of people that they’re shooting. It’s way less than it used to be, but it’s still high compared to other cities like New York. 

I think part of that is because of stop-and-frisk. They don’t call it “stop-and-frisk” here and they might not be frisking everybody, but they’re stopping a hell a lot of people, most of them minorities.

So when that happens, officers get themselves in a position where people are pissed off after being stopped. They didn’t do anything, and one thing leads to another, and people end up getting shot.  

RE: In your book “Blue,” you documented how a policing culture in the LAPD that seemed so entrenched really could change. Why hasn’t that message gone out to other police forces?

JD: There’s great resistance to it. The criminal justice system in this country is criminal. It’s just awful, it’s terrible. It’s not just the police. It’s prosecutors and their political careers. It’s politicians, the jails, it’s the prisons. They’re  just hellholes. 

The whole system is not designed to salvage human beings, to stop people from committing crimes. It’s not designed to reform people. That used to be the goal. Now, no more.  

RE: Do you believe that when groups like Black Lives Matter capitalize on this legitimate hostility, they create a mentality that leads to events like the murder of police officers in Dallas?  

JD: It’s not for me to say how African-Americans should react to the police. There’s enough African-American leadership and enough African-American young people who understand everything that’s going on. They’ll decide on how they should act.

But to bring about change, you have to have all levels of pressure. Some of the pressure is from journalists writing about the police. Right now, Black Lives Matter is pushing from the grass-roots level and you need to have that. I do agree, however, that it’s really counterproductive to be violent. But for the most part, I think  Black Lives Matter hasn’t been violent. They’re speaking their truth.  

RE: And what about the rest of us?  We often feel so hopeless; what what can we do?

JD: I would argue now is the time to support Charlie Beck, because Charlie Beck and police chiefs like him are the best folks for solving this problem.

RE: You started by saying you feel burnt out writing about these issues. Are you at all optimistic? 

JD: I don’t feel the tension is anywhere near what it was in the ’60s, but I do agree that it’s a dangerous time. And I think it all depends,  so much depends, on this election. 

And I think that you see that things can be optimistic if you look at California, things are getting done. So it’s hard to say which way we’re going to go. Human nature is human nature, so I just don’t know. I’m hopeful but not optimistic.

This interview was edited and condensed

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism and @RobEshman.