Pity Daryl F. Gates, the Los Angeles chief of police. He keeps trying to do the compassionate thing, and nobody wants to give him credit.
It was compassion that led him to authorize his officers to use two special methods for subduing those arrested --the "bar-arm hold" and the "carotid control hold," or choke hold, as it is also known. These disabling holds make it unnecessary for police officers to use their weapons.
It was compassion that led him, a couple of weeks ago, to ban the bar- arm hold, which blocks the flow of oxygen to the lungs.
And it was compassion that led him, a few days ago, to ask his personnel and training division to try to determine if blacks are more vulnerable than "normal people" to injury from the carotid control hold, which produces unconsciousness by cutting off the flow of blood to the brain. It seems that, since 1975, something like 15 persons have died as a result of the two techniques, and 12 of the victims have been black.
Chief Gates thought he was showing "great sensitivity" when he asked his aides to confirm his "hunch" that blacks might not recover as quickly as whites from carotid chokeholds. "We may be finding that in some blacks when it (the choke hold) is applied, the veins and arteries do not open as fast as they do in normal people."
He has been explaining since then that he did not intend to imply that blacks are other than normal. "I have absolutely no apology to make at all for what I was thinking," he said in a prepared statement last Wednesday after a hearing before the Police Commission. "But I very deeply want to apologize for the manner in which I expressed it. . . . My reference to 'normal people' was unfortunate-- very unfortunate--and was meant only to apply to the normal functioning of blood traveling through arteries to the brain.
"I was pursuing what I believed to be a compassionate course."
If there is a reluctance in Los Angeles to credit his compassion, it may have something to do with the public perception of his attitudes toward minorities. In January, the compassionate chief suggested that the Soviet Union might be using ersatz Soviet Jewish emigr,es in a plot to disrupt the 1984 Olympics. He later met with Jewish leaders to explain his remarks.
In 1978, he offered that Latino police officers were not rising in rank because they were "lazy." He apologized for that one, too, explaining that he used the word "lazy" only in a joking way.
Almost lost in the newest controversy is the fact that 15 people are dead. Even if all 15 were normal--that is, white--it might have occurred to Gates that his compassionate embrace was killing people. If that unfortunate fact had crossed his mind, he might have suspended the technique without waiting to be told to do so. (The Police Commission voted unanimously to ban use of the choke hold for six months, except in cases where the officer himself is being subjected to deadly force.) And when it turned out that four-fifths of the victims were black, it might have occurred to him to wonder whether the special holds were being applied with special harshness, or at least special frequency, to blacks.
None of this registered on the chief. All he could think of was the possibility that the dead blacks might be victims of their own physiological abnormalities. After all, he observed, blacks have a greater incidence of high blood pressure and sickle-cell anemia.
If this $94,500-a-year public servant isn't too lazy to look (just joking), he might discover that blacks and Hispanics are somewhat likelier than "normal" people to be victims of police abuse and brutality. If he finds that to be the case, will he look to the medical texts to tell him why? Or will he assume, compassionately, that the problem lies closer to home?