Patterico's Pontifications

1/22/2008

Steve Lopez: Maybe I Should Have Gotten the Other Side of the Story After All

Filed under: Crime,Dog Trainer,General — Patterico @ 6:55 am

Back in 2004, Steve Lopez wrote the following about the incident in which LAPD officer John Hatfield hit a car theft suspect with a flashlight:

Yeah, yeah, yeah, go ahead and investigate, but I saw what I saw.

. . . .

Although this thing looked bad, Bratton said from 3,000 miles away, “There should be no rush to judgment before the investigations are completed.”

Guess what, Chief. My investigation is complete.

Any cop who’d whack a captured suspect 11 times, on live TV no less, is too dumb to keep past lunch.

I quoted this passage in a post that criticized Lopez for rushing to judgment. I noted that even a local civil rights leader had said we need to get all the facts.

Although Lopez proudly declared in 2004 he didn’t need to get Hatfield’s side of the story, on Sunday he did exactly that: he sat down with Hatfield himself and watched the video as Hatfield talked him through it. The result is a remarkable column titled Good cop makes bad decision.

Hatfield says his flashlight blows were aimed at weakening the left arm. As we watch the video, he convinces me I was probably wrong when I wrote that he was waling on a man “who was already restrained.”

Miller was down, yes, and certainly wasn’t going anywhere at that point, with three cops on him and more arriving. But it appears that he might still be resisting by not surrendering his left arm.

. . . .

[T]he case is more nuanced than I acknowledged at the time, and for that, I apologize to Hatfield.

Of course, there was an easy way for Lopez to have learned about these nuances at the time: he could have done what journalists are supposed to do, and try to get both sides of the story. Instead, he did what most journalists do: he made up his mind going in, and belittled the side he didn’t like. Having finally looked into the other side now, four years later, Lopez learns something that surprises him. While he still thinks Hatfield’s actions were excessive, it turns out that Hatfield actually isn’t a bad guy:

Miller, sentenced to three years in prison for evading arrest, got a $450,000 settlement from the city despite having only minor abrasions. And Hatfield, who had no other substantial complaints against him in eight years of mostly commendable service, lost everything for 30 seconds worth of decision-making.

“What hurts the most is the suggestion that I was a racist,” says Hatfield, whose wife is Iranian, whose mother is of Mexican descent and whose best man at his first wedding was African American.

Lopez speaks to civil rights attorney Connie Rice, who did what Lopez never bothered to do in 2004: check out Hatfield’s background.

“I sat through Hatfield’s Board of Rights hearing,” she said when we met. “I said to Chief Bratton at the time that I would not have fired Hatfield.”

Why not?

“He was one of the good ones,” she said.

Rice said she checked with sources in the LAPD and in South L.A. right after the incident. Among other things, she learned that Hatfield occasionally shot baskets with neighborhood kids. He also helped raise money for a scholarship program for low-income kids.

I’m pleased to see Lopez revisiting this. He didn’t have to do this. He could do what journalists usually do: let their slanders and sloppiness live on, standing as the “first draft of history” regardless of their lack of accuracy and fairness. Lopez didn’t do that, and I respect him for that. I also respect him for reminding readers of his 2004 opinions, embarrassing as they might be now. (He specifically quotes part of the first quote above, repeating his line: “Any cop who’d whack a captured suspect 11 times, on live TV no less, is too dumb to keep past lunch.”)

But I’m not letting Lopez off the hook entirely. He wrote at least three entire columns on this topic at the time. He never bothered to get Hatfield’s side for any of them. This was sheer laziness and journalistic malpractice. What else does this guy have to do besides write his three columns a week?

(By the way, Lopez’s old columns are no longer available on the L.A. Times web site. I pulled the links from my own 2004 post. But they should be available, and they should all be linked next to Lopez’s column. I have seen the paper include links to old stories that are otherwise behind the pay wall when they are relevant to the current story. The paper should have followed that procedure with Lopez’s column.)

Ultimately, the question I have is whether Lopez has learned anything from this experience. Does he now see the value in getting the other side of the story — even when he thinks the video was clear? Or does he consider this to be the only time that his shoot-from-the-hip style of snarky commentary has missed significant nuances on the other side of the issue?

If the latter, then he’s learned nothing.

23 Responses to “Steve Lopez: Maybe I Should Have Gotten the Other Side of the Story After All”

  1. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Aaron Wakling

    Aaron Wakling (02d9bc)

  2. Ultimately, the question I have is whether Lopez has learned anything from this experience.

    Apparently very little. Near the end he says that Officer Hatfield should “probably” still have been fired.

    Old Coot (206b3f)

  3. Any journapundit who’d whack a cop in three separate columns without bothering to check his facts, in a major metropolitan newsrag no less, is too dumb to keep past lunch.

    An “oops, my bad” four years afterward is a bit too late for the good man whose career he blindly worked to run into the ground.

    PCachu (e072b7)

  4. This is disturbing on so many levels.

    Why didn’t the LAT demand that Lopez get both sides of the story before running it? Isn’t that Journo 101? Especially in L.A., where there is a less than warm relationship between the LAPD and the LATs? Wouldn’t a serious newspaper want to insure the quality of their reporting?

    And why would Lopez assume, unlike a court of law, that there is only one side to a story? That level of arrogance is beyond the pale especially considering how much more damage his public scourging of Hatfield caused to the officer’s good name and reputation.

    It took him four years to figure out there were two sides to the story and he ignored one? Someone this slow on the draw should not be allowed in a newsroom. Too much damage to far too many can be done by someone with such a lack of discernment.

    Dana (b4a26c)

  5. Dana,

    Why do you think I’m calling for a complete housecleaning at the LATimes?

    Anyone got a email addy for Zell?

    PCD (f14ddd)

  6. Given the nature of the LA Times‘s problems, complete housecleaning means “Fire everyone“. But where are you going to hire replacements that don’t have the same problems?

    LarryD (feb78b)

  7. Ken Grubbs has a group of people available.

    PCD (f14ddd)

  8. There’s a certain deputy district attorney in LA who would make a great LAT editor. . .

    Bradley J. Fikes (102a9d)

  9. $450,000. What a joke. There ought to be a limitation on such damages.

    Law (62ca0c)

  10. Law – Yup.

    JD (fc7319)

  11. Why didn’t the LAT demand that Lopez get both sides of the story before running it? Isn’t that Journo 101?

    I am quite sure that if you asked the LAT brass this question they would inform you that Lopez is a columnist not a reporter, and as such is free to deal in “opinion” rather than strictly in “fact.” This is why I tend to take the blatherings of all LAT columnists and opinion writers with a grain of salt.

    What I find more interesting is Patterico’s mention that Lopez managed to get three columns out of this one incident (and now I guess he is up to four with this new one). This is very Krugman-esque of him: milk the same basic premise over and over again rather than having to research a new topic or trouble your brain for a new idea.

    JVW (378b48)


  12. “This was sheer laziness and journalistic malpractice.”

    It was beyond that. It was depraved indifference. The term “professional” not only implies a high standard of competence and duty to those paying one’s salary and to one’s peers, but most importantly to the “public”. Loyalty to the last group is the true mark of a professional. Lopez had enough energy to write about this incident four times and never wrote what the public needed the most about this story. Lopez wasn’t lazy, he was intentionally malicious.

    Norris (7ac0b3)

  13. Serious question:
    Wouldn’t Hatfield have jeopardized his standing in whatever internal review, or external criminal review that was ongoing at that time? Was Hatfield in any position to sit with anyone outside of official channels and go into such detail?

    If you were his attorney, Patrick, would you have advised that he respond to Lopez with anything other than denial and a plea for fairness?

    I am not excusing the patent laziness that Lopez engaged in. He can be a toad far too often. But how do the Hatfield’s and Ray Donovan’s (Where do I go to reclaim my name?) possibly defend themselves in the middle of career and legal jeopardy?

    Ed (1f3def)

  14. Lopez is your typical knee jerk, leftist agenda driven, Times writer…. and one of the main reasons i’ll won’t be buying that paper any time soon.

    redc1c4 (48a20b)

  15. Not being cynical about this (all right, I saw that smirk Pat), I can’t but wonder if this attempt at a mea culpa is not just a bald-faced attempt to convince the new suits that he (Lopez) is not just another left-leaning, pack journo?

    Is this just trying to dodge the avalanche of pink slips?

    Another Drew (758608)

  16. A journalist, like a bureaucrat, can cavalierly wreck (or participate in wrecking) your life and, if you’re very, very lucky, some years later they will look back and say “whoopsie!”

    And they say we don’t live in an aristocracy…

    Merovign (4744a2)

  17. Isn’t there any adult supervison at the LAT? Also, in the latest dust up over the editor’s firing/resignation, wasn’t Lopez publicly lauded by someone in the paper’s management?

    sam (a75ffa)

  18. I can’t remember where I read it — I think maybe the LA Weekly — but I recall reading that the Times is paying Lopez $300,000 per year for his journalistic dreck. If they are serious about saving money, pink slipping him might be a good start. With benefits included he would probably account for about 10% of the $4 million that the publisher was told to cut.

    JVW (378b48)

  19. No, Lopez denied that to me. I had read it online, I think in the L.A. Examiner, and had included a reference to his salary (with the link) in an early Dog Trainer Year in Review. Lopez wrote me to deny it, and I believe him.

    Patterico (4bda0b)

  20. Speaking of journalists with agendas.

    DRJ (517d26)

  21. Whatever! Would Lopez have written this column if Hatfield were simply A white cop w/o a Mexican mother, w/o an Iranian wife and w/o a black Best man? Would he be less tolerable if like may of us he didn’t have time to shoot hoops with youths?

    Demetri (c3f397)

  22. Hello all, thanks for the comments. I met with Mr Lopez, and found him to be a decent man. I’ve never been a big fan of the LA Times, but I felt that I needed to use all avenues to get my story ou there. I was a bit disappointed that he didn’t mention the fact that I was told by an LA City Attorney that he saw the rationale for my board of rights on Berkows computer,,,prior to the conclusion of my board of rights. As I have often said, I understand that reasonable minds can come to different conclusions when watching the video. At this point, I’m not really interested in changing peoples minds. I’m more interested in the lack of due process, and the internal discipline system that is corrupt and broken. Once again, thanks for the comments…John Hatfield

    John Hatfield (ec3dde)

  23. Always in support of John Hatfield. Great Guy!!

    Aidee (1e3298)


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