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.”
“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.