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Cops Want Watchdogs Leashed / News Bites

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The cover story of today's Reader examines police brutality in Chicago. Reporter John Conroy wonders why a society that can't claim ignorance of it is willing to let reprehensible conduct go unredressed. Among his explanations is the temptation each of us feels to let someone else do something about a crisis first.

Well, someone is doing something. We recently heard from Citizens Alert, the sort of pesky police watchdog group that antagonists say makes mountains out of molehills. "In recent months," wrote coordinator Mary Powers, "there has been an intentional assault on any form of relief or redress and an attempt to eliminate complaint mechanisms for victims of abuse.

"Civilian review boards have been undermined and attacked by police associations in major cities. Under the excuse of budgetary crises, many have been dismantled or disabled. The highly respected Washington D.C. board was closed down with over 500 pending complaints returned to the police department itself to investigate and dispense discipline--if so inclined. San Diego County Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board, whose birth police had fought tooth and nail, found its budget cut by half in its first year....In Pennsylvania, the Fraternal Order of Police introduced state legislation attempting to prohibit Philadelphia from establishing any civilian review mechanism, now or in the future! This in a city where more than a thousand drug-related cases are coming under review because of misconduct by renegade officers who presently await sentencing for beating, lying and planting phony evidence!"

But what troubled Powers most was a bill recently before Congress that would have limited punitive damages against cops sued for misconduct to $10,000 and plaintiffs' lawyers' fees to one-third of damages.

As hearings began in November Representative Carlos Moorhead, the California Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property, stated the case for the legislation. "Law enforcement officers and departments have become inundated with lawsuits arising out of routine police activities such as making arrests, conducting searches, and apprehending suspects," he contended. "Police are being sued for placing handcuffs on too tightly, or even for grabbing or pushing a suspect who refuses to cooperate.

...The threat of a financially devastating unpredictable punitive damage claim is undermining faith in the judicial system, in which law enforcement officers play an integral part. The result is lower morale among our law enforcement officers."

Moorhead brandished hard numbers. "The National Association of Police Associations has conducted a preliminary random national survey of 800 people. Sixty-six percent support limiting the potential personal liability of police officers who are sued for violating civil rights."

The national president of the Fraternal Order of Police also saw a need for action. "If we ask our police officers to protect us," Gilbert Gallegos testified, "then we must be willing to protect them. At a minimum, they should not be subject to the horrendous prospect of losing their jobs, their homes, their financial well-being because their actions are second-guessed by judges and juries who know nothing about police work other than what they are told by hired experts."

Yet Gallegos criticized the bill before the subcommittee for not going far enough. He said the bill needed to be expanded to cover the FBI and other federal agencies as well as state and local officers. He said the "reforms" it offered should not be limited to federal suits over "conduct in the course of official duty." That was too stringent. It should cover all federal suits, period, even if the conduct challenged wasn't deemed "official." He asked, "Why give biased judges and juries a potential loophole?"

He said the language of the bill needed beefing up to raise the threshold of police behavior that would be considered punishable misconduct in the first place. And he said no cop should ever be fined more than he could afford to pay. "Even $10,000 may be way beyond the means of a rookie police officer," he reasoned. "We suggest that you look to state laws to impose this requirement in a way that protects our officers' fundamental rights to privacy."

Not all the testimony ran in this vein. The subcommittee's ranking Democrat, Patricia Schroeder of Colorado, argued that the lid on attorneys' fees would guarantee that very few attorneys ever took the cases. "The jury verdict in police misconduct cases serves as a messenger to the community in general and to the law enforcement agency in particular," she said. "The message is that there is a problem that needs to be fixed. The bill before us today, however, sends precisely the wrong message to the law enforcement community. This bill tells agencies not to worry about the message, because Congress will take care of the problem by shooting the messenger."

The bill did not get out of committee, small comfort to a worrywart like Mary Powers. She frets, "Who knows what will happen next year?"

She asked if I knew that last month the appellate court of Illinois upheld Chicago's Police Board in the Jon Burge case. (In 1993 the board found Commander Burge guilty of physically abusing a prisoner and kicked him off the force.) I said I didn't. She wasn't surprised. To her it was big news, but it didn't make the papers.

Does anyone know how to write a game story anymore? Blanket coverage the morning after is the sport sections' response to TV the night before, but nowhere on or under that blanket does someone simply gather readers round and tell what happened. Newspapers fail at simple narrative even when the game to be chronicled is a classic that begs for it.

The Rose Bowl was one of those terrific games, and it ended early enough in the evening for a spellbinding bard from yesteryear to have tapped the tale into his portable with two lithe fingers. The Sun-Times, whose coverage overwhelmed the Tribune's, threw nine writers at the game. The quotes and commentary and colorful detail they amassed filled a 16-page special section. But nowhere was the Northwestern-University of Southern California game allowed to speak for itself.

Instead its dramatic surges and reversals were scattered incoherently through the section. Len Ziehm's lead story stressed Brian Musso's disastrous fumble that put USC up 24-7 late in the first half. But the USC fumble two minutes later that led to a Wildcats field goal and allowed their fans to sit through halftime daring to hope was remembered only in a Herb Gould sidebar back on page ten.

An interception late in the game by the Trojans' Jesse Davis "all but ended any hopes of a Wildcats victory," wrote Ziehm. But emotionally the battle was far from over. Despair would turn first to brief giddiness and then to deeper misery as--with plenty of time left for Northwestern to recover an onside kick and score again--Steve Schnur passed to D'Wayne Bates for a touchdown that was called back because of a holding penalty. If you chose to hold on to your hopes--and after this season there was no reason not to--you didn't let go of them entirely until Brian Gowins's attempted field goal banged into an upright in the last minute. But Bates's lost TD was reported only in some game notes on page 14 that didn't say when it occurred, and the missed field goal only in columns by Rick Telander and Jay Mariotti.

(As a contrast, read the first five paragraphs of Rick Reilly's Rose Bowl piece in Sports Illustrated.)

Northwestern's onside kick early in the second half didn't make the lead story either. Gould and Richard Roeper alluded to the daring play that put the Wildcats back in the game, but only Mariotti described it.

"I would say, in fairness to Len Ziehm, who did the game story, we probably edited out some of the play-by-play as the night went on and we got quotes from him," executive sports editor Bill Adee told me. "By 11 PM that night, just having the TV on in the background in the office, I had seen the highlights probably 15 times on a combination of Channel Two, Channel Seven, CLTV, ESPN, CNN. I guess my feeling is, so have others, and we want to get quickly to what they haven't seen on TV."

This philosophy rules daily journalism. It supposes that by the next morning there's less meaning or pleasure to be found in the game itself than in the attitudes columnists strike about it and in the musings of its participants after it's over. Musings such as these:

Gary Barnett: "When you turn the ball over, you're playing against two forces--yourself and USC."

Brian Musso: "The refs called it like they see it, and I can't change it. I've got to live with it."

John Robinson: "We were innovative and well-prepared. That's why we won the game. It was a great day, a great football game, and our guys deserved it."

Steve Schnur: "You can lose and still be a winner."

Is the game story a lost art? I asked Adee.

"It's not necessarily a lost art," he said. "I think sports editors have buried it, and I'm probably among them. My mandate these days, and I think as we go on into the future, is to give something to the people more than the game story, which is what you got in your paper 20 years ago. Personally, when I start reading a story and it starts going into play-by-play I stop reading.

"I know what you're saying though. Thomas Boswell used to write these wonderful game stories. I don't think he had a quote in them. He would make the Orioles-Texas Rangers game sound like the seventh game of the World Series, and it was truly wonderful to read. He was sort of in that real old school of sportswriters who didn't want any quotes in the story, because they just gummed up the writing.

"But I've seen sports sections where there are no game stories. It's all bullets and highlights, things like that--boxes and charts--and there's nothing to read. In fact, you don't have a dateline. I think that's going too far. I guess my solution on a game like this is you need a little play-by-play box, somewhere you can get a blow-by-blow of the game. But boy, I don't know. When I get to that part of the story my brain shuts off."

Sports Illustrated, even under severe deadlines, excels at narrative. It can be done. When an event stirs us, many of us, I think, feel unsettled until it's been transmuted into language. A game is for the ages only when sportswriters have made it so. If the game doesn't matter 12 hours after it's over, why were nine writers assigned to cover it?

News Bites

The day of the Rose Bowl game both Chicago papers ran short items reporting that the Russian Tea Room in New York was closing for renovations. The wire stories mentioned that the famous restaurant had been sold in 1995 by Faith Stewart-Gordon, who inherited it from her late husband in 1967.

What both papers missed was that Stewart-Gordon graduated from Northwestern in the early 50s, as Faith Burwell, and moved to New York for a life in theater. On a day when no link to purple passion was too remote, this one was noted only in the New York Times.

• Years ago when John Fink was editor of Chicago magazine, he stuck it out with me until an article far too close to my heart for me to finish writing became fit to print. Patience is the mark of the best editors. He stuck it out with himself too. In 1991, living alone, on nobody's payroll, and 65 years old, he published his first novel. A reviewer called him "a powerful talent," and Fink told me, "I don't know what other expression an author could hunger for more."

Fink kept writing and publishing books until he died last month. I admired him very much.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.

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