Dead Wrong by Connie Dial
Between 1981 and 2009 across America, twenty-six died in so-called police-on-police shootings. In this, there’s an interesting fact. Almost all the off-duty officers mistaken for offenders and shot by fellow officers have been officers of colour. The last time an off-duty white officer was shot and killed was in 1982. We should be clear about this. Both parties in the shootings have been officers risking their lives to enforce the law and, by virtue of their training, all these deaths should have been preventable. This inevitably means race cannot be easily discounted as a reason why the deaths were not prevented. Again to be clear, the reported deaths are the tip of the iceberg. The majority of officers do not switch off when they leave work for the day. When they see a crime in progress, they routinely intervene. While in plain clothes and seen to be carrying a gun, all such officers are in danger and confrontations between on- and off-duty officers occur every day. Many officers of colour are routinely mistaken for criminals and many are shot, fortunately not with fatal consequences. This leads to a strong presumption. That there’s a strong racial bias among white officers to stereotype people of colour, and particularly African Americans, as dangerous criminals. That there’s a shoot-first-and-ask-questions afterwards approach to policing.
My reason for starting this review of Dead Wrong by Connie Dial (The Permanent Press, 2013) with a few statistics is because this book begins with Sergeant Kyle Richards, a white officer, shooting and killing Officer Terence Dupre, an African American. This occurs in a dark alley at night as the sergeant is responding to a silent burglar alarm. In choosing to focus on such a killing in the LAPD, the author is immediately setting off into difficult territory with the story of Christopher Dorner still fresh in our minds. You will recall he alleged he was the victim of racial bias which led to him being fired. Given the relationship between the LAPD and the black community has long been difficult, the real world police have been reviewing the reasons for Dorner’s firing. In this book, there’s immediate community anger and the police move carefully to investigate the circumstances of the shooting as a more or less permanent protest demonstration takes up residence outside the Hollywood Community Police Station where the sergeant is based. The captain in charge of this division is Josie Corsino and, despite nominally being a desk jockey, she becomes actively involved in the investigation. From an internal perspective, there’s a very clear explanation for the sergeant’s presence in the alley. There’s also fairly clear video evidence from surveillance cameras showing he followed protocol in the shooting. The same cannot be said for the victim who was on suspension. No-one knows what he was doing in the alley. All that can immediately be said is that he was driving an expensive sports car belonging to a somewhat notorious local attorney, an attorney who’s quickly into action to prepare a civil action for the deceased’s family against the city.
This is a book written by an insider. The author used to work in the police station which is the main scene of the action in this book. To some extent, Dead Wrong is a fictionalised version of what it’s actually like to work for the LAPD. I’m trying to write this in a neutral tone because many of the elements described in this book are deeply worrying. We’ve been so continuously exposed to novels, films and television programs showing us the world of both conscientious and corrupt police officers and shyster lawyers, it’s easy to treat each plot as an exaggeration of reality. Everyone understands that novelists and screenwriters need to deliver thrills and excitement. Sadly, the real world is more often routine and boring. Exaggeration is therefore required to inject the necessary drama and tension. But this novel feels authentic.
It has a simple and direct writing style, delivered in slightly dense prose which gives us the facts. It doesn’t make a song-and-dance about it. Unlike other writers who resort to purple prose to enhance the reading experience and colour our perception of what’s described, this just lays out the course of the investigation and leaves it to us to draw our own conclusions. I was hooked. It’s easy to make quick judgements about police officers who bend the rules on evidence collection. In this case we see conscientious individuals caught up in a difficult situation who take what they can find and use it to get results. That some of what they do is illegal is a commentary on the nature of the laws themselves. When investigations would quickly stall and the “truth” of the matter would remain concealed, creative rule bending and breaking is the only way forward. This doesn’t mean we should condone all illegal activities by police officers, but it should provoke a more transparent review of the current law to determine how the rules can be modified to permit police officers to be more effective detectives — assuming that’s what they want and we need, of course.
As to the police-on-police shooting itself, I find the investigation process described here to be thorough and designed to maximise the chance of working out what actually happened. I have two follow-up thoughts. Because this is LA and the relationship between the police and the different communities is tense, each investigation is highly politicised, if not on the ground, then certainly at the higher levels within the force and the city. This may militate against the effectiveness of the investigation or the transparency of dealing with the investigation’s conclusions. The second thought is the failure of this book to refer to any effort in the recruitment or training of police officers to screen for racial bias in the candidates or to train them to be less racially biased when they go out on the streets. There seems to be an assumption that nothing needs to be done to improve the performance of armed officers. This strikes me as a serious omission. As a captain in charge of a busy division, screening for racist beliefs and monitoring for racist behaviour should be routine if the relationships with local communities are to be repaired. Being seen to do nothing internally and investing significant investigative effort to prove the deceased black officer to be a criminal simply confirm the impression of racial prejudice.
As police procedurals go, this is one of the best I’ve read over the last year. It gives an unvarnished view of life in the police force and the pressures this brings to relationships. In this case, we get to see the problems in Corsino’s own family and the stresses in the lives of the other key officers involved in the investigation, an investigation that quickly opens out when the attorney representing the family of the dead officer is murdered. Pick your own reason to read this. It’s “tough”, “realistic”, “gritty”, “brave”, and so on. Whatever reason you pick, Dead Wrong is a book you should read.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.