Opinion L.A.

Observations and provocations
from The Times' Opinion staff

Category: Crime

Obama's shining 'If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon' moment

President Obama at the White House on Friday
"If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon."

With those 10 simple words, President Obama said so much on Friday.

Obama was at the White House -- introducing his nominee to take over as World Bank president -- when he was asked by a reporter to address the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

He also offered this somewhat stock comment:

"I think all of us have to do some soul-searching to figure out how does something like this happen. And that means that we examine the laws and the context for what happened, as well as the specifics of the incident."

Any president could have -- probably would have -- said that.

But it doesn't have the power of the "if I had a son" remark, or this:  

"Obviously this is a tragedy. I can only imagine what these parents are going through. And when I think about this boy, I think about my own kids."

Never before has the killing of a young black man been quite so personal to one of our presidents. 

Oh, we've had presidents who did great things for civil rights -- Lyndon B. Johnson, for example.

But this is different. And it's one of the reasons that Obama's presidency is so historic, and so important to the United States.

Trayvon Martin is far from the first young black man to be killed in murky circumstances. The Times has reported on the troubling history of black residents and police in Sanford, Fla., where the shooting took place.  And The Times' editorial board weighed in on Florida's so-called stand your ground law, which may have played a role in this and a number of other shootings labeled self-defense in that state.

No, what makes this death notable is that this time our president -- and his children -- look like the victim. Heck, in other circumstances -- easily imagined circumstances, in fact -- one of them could have been the victim.

Obama did not judge anyone with his comments, did not label anyone. But when this president says, "I think all of us have to do some soul-searching to figure out how does something like this happen" --– well, yes, any president could have said that, but there's a little something extra there.

The United States can be proud of the advances it has made in civil rights. Racism is nowhere near as overt and pervasive today.

But, of course, it's still there.

Only now, when our president speaks out about it, it's, well, personal.

And that's why it doesn't really matter if Obama is just a one-term president, or if he achieves little in terms of legislative triumphs.

Because of him, we as a nation will never be quite the same. In electing Obama, we have looked racism in the eye and said "no."  

And that's a great thing.  

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--Paul Whitefield

Photo: President Obama was asked about the killing of Trayvon Martin on Friday during a White House ceremony. Credit:  Haraz N. Ghanbari / Associated Press

Big government won't build you a snore room, that's for sure

Del Webb home offers snore roomWhen it comes to domestic issues, Americans should trust the private sector.

That's a Republican Party mantra, and two stories in The Times this week have me convinced as well.

Now, I know you think one concerns gasoline prices. Really, though, who cares about that? Snore.

That's right: I'm talking about snoring.  As The Times' Lauren Beale reported:

A so-called snore room is the latest offering from Del Webb, which builds communities for people 55 and older.

Buyers whose marriages are plagued by a spouse who snorts, grunts and wheezes while he or she sleeps can opt for an adaptable bedroom plan marketed as the "owners retreat" at Sun City Shadow Hills in Indio. Designed for couples who start out in the same bed but end up apart because of ear-piercing snoring, insomnia or late-night TV viewing habits, this secondary bedroom is connected to the bathroom of the master bedroom.

See?  Big problem; private-sector solution. You leave that to government, and pretty soon you've got government-run snore insurance instead.

Still, even the private sector can stumble. For example, I'm a bit puzzled by Del Webb's logic:

"A nice enclave that shares the master bathroom provides a civilized alternative to the family room sofa," said Jacque Petroulakis, corporate communications spokeswoman for PulteGroup Inc., the parent company of Del Webb.

About a quarter of couples in the 55-and-older age group sleep apart to get a good night's rest, according to PulteGroup, which got the data from a third party but also conducted focus groups and interviews as it developed the bedroom plan.

Now first of all, the sofa isn't for snoring husbands; it's for misbehaving husbands, or came-home-late-drunk husbands -- which, come to think of it, is redundant. (It's never for wives, of course, who are too savvy to choose the sofa, regardless of their transgressions.)

Second, if you're 55 or older and still married to someone who snores, isn't it a bit late to be dealing with the problem? Seems to me the snore room should be marketed at 30-year-olds, who need all the help they can get keeping their marriages together.

But, staying true to the private sector's can-do spirit, in addition to the snore room, Del Webb is offering other conveniences:

Among other new life-easing features the builder is offering are pass-throughs from the closet to the laundry room. A door large enough to push a hamper through connects the two spaces.

Which brings me to my second domestic issue story of the week: widespread thievery of Tide detergent.

The Times Dalina Castellanos reported:

Thieves seem to be embarking on an anti-grime spree, some media outlets are reporting, saying thousands of dollars in Tide detergent is being swiped from shelves across the country.

One Minnesota man stole about $25,000 worth of the liquid laundry detergent from a West St. Paul Wal-Mart over 15 months, authorities there say.

And who's to blame for this crime wave?  Sadly, dear liberals, it appears that Rush and Sean and Glenn are right: It's the government -- or, in this case, at least one peson who apparently has fallen prey to the liberal-nanny-state mentality.  

Lt. Matt Swenke of the West St. Paul Police Department said in an interview with The Times that Patrick Costanzo, 53, was the suspect in the Minnesota thefts.

"He told [police] he didn't have a job and the state didn't help him in any way so he did what he had to do to get by," Swenke said.

Yes, it's true, liberals: You do a man's laundry, he's clean for a day. You teach him to do his own laundry, and he won't steal Tide.

Which doesn't make a lot of sense, I'll admit. But then again, my wife keeps me awake a night -- either snoring or doing the laundry.

Speaking of which:  Why do we have so much Tide?

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--Paul Whitefield

Photo: A so-called snore room is the latest offering from Del Webb, which builds communities for people 55 and older. Credit: Handout

War on drugs' big catch -- 'Viagra man'

The U.S. is spending vast sums and still can't effectively stem the flow of drugs from Latin America, but we are managing to protect the country from the evils of counterfeit erectile dysfunction pills
These just in -- two dispatches from the front of the war on drugs:

"U.S. fails to catch two-thirds of drug boats, general says," and "Man charged with smuggling 40,000 erectile dysfunction pills."

One is about being stupid. The other is about being caught.

I'll let you decide which is which.

First, Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, commander of the U.S. Southern Command, told reporters Wednesday that military efforts to stem drug smuggling from Latin America are being hampered because planes and ships have been diverted to combat operations elsewhere.

It's certainly not a problem of funding, though. As The Times' story says:

The military has spent $6.1 billion since 2005 to help detect drug payloads heading to the U.S., as well as on surveillance and other intelligence operations, according to a report last year by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

At prices like that, it might be cheaper for the government to just buy the cocaine from the cartels.

And, of course, there's this little Catch-22:

"Any drug interdiction strategy is a Band-Aid, a temporary fix," said Bruce Bagley, who studies U.S. counter-narcotics efforts at the University of Miami at Coral Gables, Fla. "It may reduce the supply for a short time, but what does get in is worth more."

Well, yeah, there's that. Otherwise known as the 800-lb. gorilla of the whole war-on-drugs policy. Drugs are illegal, but people still want them.  So someone supplies them. So we spend a fortune to try to stop them. And whatever we catch just makes the stuff we don't catch more valuable, which makes the guys who supply it richer. 

Legalization, anyone?

Naw, then people might use more drugs, and that would mean more addicts, and that would mean we would have to spend money on treatment. Instead of, uh, spending a large fortune trying to fight cartels that corrupt governments and kill people and -- well, OK, it's a mess.

Honestly, I don't know if legalization would work. But I'm pretty sure that what we're doing now isn't working.

Still, I'll admit that the current system did manage to get its man, one Kil Jun Lee, 71, of Westlake, Calif. 

Lee allegedly tried to slip 29,827 counterfeit Viagra tablets, 8,993 counterfeit Cialis pills and 793 counterfeit Levitra tablets past authorities at LAX by hiding them in his golf bag and luggage. (Which, of course, was his first mistake, because as any wife who's been abandoned for five hours on a Sunday by her golf-addict husband can tell you, golf and sex never mix.)

And it's not as though the law enforcement guys didn't have a sense of humor:

According to the criminal complaint, Lee concealed the tablets in aluminum-foil-wrapped packets, and was questioned by authorities about whether the pills were all for personal use. He responded that he had a heart condition, and using all the pills would kill him.

Oh, ha ha -- "all for your personal use."

Also, Lee didn't come across as your typical hardened drug smuggler:

He also said he "did not believe the pills were genuine," adding that "he was sorry" for bringing the pills and "will not do it again."

Which, really, is good enough for me. A sincere apology and a promise not to be a repeat offender for what is, in a sense, a victimless crime. (Unless, of course, you paid good money for the counterfeit stuff -- but then again, caveat emptor!)

So the Navy and Coast Guard will continue their futile efforts to stop Latin America's cartels. 

And the good folks at LAX will continue to protect us from the evils of phony Viagra.

And we taxpayers will keep paying for it all.

And that's no joke.

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-- Paul Whitefield

Photo: Colombian police at a cocaine production laboratory in the jungle. Credit: Mauricio Duenas / EPA

James Q. Wilson: A political scientist's unswerving honesty

James Q. Wilson

It is easy, and not altogether untrue, to think of James Q. Wilson as a conservative. He wrote extensively on morality, social order and duty. He was skeptical of gay marriage, supportive of the war in Iraq, and he was the most influential intellectual in the development of modern policing. But he was not foremost an ideological figure. As he told me in 2007, he wrote not to dictate answers but rather to explore problems. "I write," he said, "in order to figure out for myself what I think about the subject."

I knew Wilson for almost 20 years, our paths crossing rarely but, for me, always memorably. Never in our many conversations did I hear him answer a question by rote; he listened, thought hard, questioned his own assumptions as well as those of others. He would often give something to both sides of an argument. He was, unfailingly, too genuine to embrace slippery reasoning, even when it favored his side of an argument.

For many years, Wilson was a regular member of one of Los Angeles' most exclusive book clubs, which met at the home of then-Mayor Richard Riordan. It was Riordan who suggested I get to know Wilson, and I am profoundly glad that he did. Wilson, said Riordan, "is the most intellectually honest person I've ever known." Riordan could be wrong, but he was right in this case. Wilson leaves a great legacy of wisdom and curiosity, but his greatest contribution to his culture was his unswerving honesty.

 A collection of Wilson's work for the Los Angeles Times over the years appears after the jump.

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--Jim Newton

Photo: James Q. Wilson is seen near his office at UCLA in November 1996. Credit: Anacleto Rapping / Los Angeles Times

 

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Putting the right price on Megaupload chief Kim Dotcom's release

Kim Dotcom out on bail
A week after a judge in New Zealand finally allowed Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom out on bail, U.S. prosecutors are still trying to keep the accused criminal copyright infringer behind bars. The New Zealand government heads to court Monday to appeal Dotcom's Feb. 22 release, arguing on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice that the multimillionaire may try to disappear instead of facing trial.

Let's pause for a moment while you come up with your own joke about how someone as, umm, large as Dotcom could slip through the government's fingers. Extra points for including the line "the round mound of remand."

I'm no fan of Megaupload, and the indictment lays out a plausible case that Dotcom and other company executives were engaged in a conspiracy to promote copyright infringement on a massive scale for their own enrichment. It's just an allegation at this point, however, and we in the United States like to say that we believe people are innocent until proved guilty. The same notion holds sway in New Zealand.

That principle doesn't preclude holding people without bail if they pose a demonstrable risk to society or there's a real chance they won't show up for trial. But the latter consideration is why courts have the power to set conditions on bail. In Dotcom's case, his assets have been frozen and a home he owns in New Zealand stands as collateral for his $4.3-million bail. If he skips trial, he loses the home and, most likely, those assets.

Although prosecutors say they're afraid Dotcom has hidden assets, the New Zealand judge who granted him bail (after almost a month behind bars) said authorities have looked and found nothing of consequence. Besides, prosecutors are paid to advocate on behalf of only one side of the case at this point -- the side that wants to convict Dotcom. Nevertheless, it undermines their credibility when they seek the same kind of treatment for an accused copyright infringer as they would for a suspected serial killer.

If fleeing would cost Dotcom all of his known assets, that seems like a sufficient deterrent. After all, aside from jail time, that's as large a penalty as prosecutors could hope to obtain at trial. 

By the way, Dotcom argues that Megaupload stayed within the bounds of copyright law. His lawyers also contend that he won't flee because he has three children and a pregnant wife in New Zealand.

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-- Jon Healey

Photo: Megaupload chief Kim Dotcom speaks to the media shortly after being granted bail. Credit:  Brett Phibbs / New Zealand Herald/AP

Would the LAPD's proposed new impound policy undermine public safety?

Getprev

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck made headlines this week. His proposed change to the department's impound policy and his support for issuing provisional driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants have sparked an intense debate.

The Police Protective League opposes Beck's impound plan, arguing it would undermine public safety. Of course public safety should be the guiding force in the debate. But how does Beck's proposal impact public safety?

Some have suggested that the chief's plan would leave dangerous drivers on the road. To be clear, the measure would grant police greater discretion in deciding when to seize a car. Drivers without a license but with auto insurance and no prior violations could keep their cars if a licensed driver were nearby to take the wheel. In addition, those drivers could retrieve their car as soon as the next day instead of 30 days later, as is currently the policy.

The league opposes the change and often points to a report by the Washington-based AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety as evidence that any change is dangerous. The report,"Unlicensed to Kill," offers a snapshot of the types of drivers involved in fatal crashes from 2007 to 2009. The AAA study found that 12.8% of fatal crashes involved unlicensed drivers. That's alarming. But turns out that unlicensed drivers aren't just individuals who can't get a license. The AAA report found that more than half of those unlicensed drivers were actually individuals whose licenses had been either revoked, suspended or canceled or had expired. The number of unlicensed drivers who were ineligible for a license and were involved in fatal crashes was actually 5% during that same 2007 to 2009 period.

Moreover, the AAA reports seems to indicate the real problem is drunk drivers.  Nearly half of those driving without a license and involved in a fatality had alcohol in their systems.

Which brings me to the issue of impounds  and public safety. It seems much of the opposition is operating under the notion that Beck's policy would allow dangerous drivers to stay on the road. But the proposed changes would still require police to seize the cars of those unlicensed drivers who the AAA study suggest pose the real danger -- namely drivers who lost their licenses and those who had alcohol in their systems.

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--Sandra Hernandez

 Photo: LAPD Police Chief Charlie Beck. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

 

The Supreme Court shouldn't make resume-padding a crime

Xavier AlvarezWednesday was a bad day for liars at the Supreme Court. Even liberal justices seemed unsympathetic to a Pomona man who was prosecuted under a law known as the Stolen Valor Act for boasting at a public meeting that he had received the Medal of Honor. (That wasn't his only whopper. He also claimed to have played professional hockey and to have been injured while rescuing a U.S. diplomat during the Iran hostage crisis.)

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the law. One judge drolly argued that if "false factual statements are unprotected, then the government can prosecute not only the man who tells tall tales of winning the Congressional Medal of Honor, but also the JDater who falsely claims he's Jewish or the dentist who assures you it won't hurt a bit. Phrases such as 'I'm working late tonight, hunny,' 'I got stuck in traffic'  and 'I didn't inhale' could all be made into crimes."

Members of the Supreme Court weren't about to salute that parade of horribles.  Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked the U.S. solicitor general if the government also could punish people who lied about attaining a high school diploma, but Roberts didn't seem to find the idea all that objectionable. Even more revealing of Roberts' attitude was a question he posed to the lawyer for Xavier Alvarez, the Medal of Honor wannabe: "What is the 1st Amendment value in a lie, pure lie?" 

The lawyer fumbled at first but later re-framed the issue in what I think is a persuasive way: "Our founders believed that Congress as a general principle doesn't get to tell us what we as individuals can and cannot say."  Obviously there are exceptions: If Alvarez had lied about his military record to obtain money, he would have been  guilty of the eminently prosecutable crime of fraud. But in itself a  pathetic claim to military glory -- a claim easily debunked by a visit to the Internet -- isn't the sort of statement a free society should criminalize.

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-- Michael McGough

Photo: Xavier Alvarez. Credit: Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

Valentine's Day in Portland: 'No, honey, I said M&Ms!'

Portland Valentine's Day lovers
Keep the government out of the back of my Subaru!

By now you've no doubt read or heard about the Portland couple arrested after an attempted bit of Valentine's Day, uh, romantic role-playing went awry.

Seems that 26-year-old Stephanie Pelzner was in the back seat of a Subaru Legacy driven by 31-year-old Nikolas Harbar and, well, Pelzner was tied up, and had duct tape over her mouth, and was, well, yes, naked. And someone at a New Seasons Market spotted her, and I guess that even in a Portland market parking lot this seemed a bit odd. 

Now, perhaps Harbar went to the market looking for roses and candy for his sweetheart, and they were sold out, so being a man, he said, "I know what sounds romantic," and Pelzner, being a woman, didn't want to hurt his feelings and say, "No, really, a card is fine," and ...

Anyway, in a kind of screwball comedy of errors that Hollywood once turned out by the dozens, concerned citizens called the Portland police and the police dispatched nine cars and the officers tracked the couple down to their residence and Harbar explained they were just having a little Valentine's Day fun and Pelzner said she was fine (I guess someone removed the duct tape) -- but the police booked them on charges of disorderly conduct in the second degree, which is apparently what the charge is for in essence annoying the police in Portland.

And to think, I got M&Ms for Valentine's Day.

Now, I've heard of the "broken windows" policy of policing, but this is my first experience with "peeping Tom" policing.

Like a modern-day Rip Van Winkle, did I fall asleep for a year and now it turns out that Rick Santorum is president?

Are there now little drones flying around the nation's skies equipped with cameras that sense body heat and alert police to those being naked and naughty in mid-priced Japanese imports?

Have lovers' lanes been outlawed?  After all, they are a kind of gateway drug; unlike Vegas, what happens there doesn't stay there. Just ask Bristol Palin.

Or perhaps this is the latest example of the class warfare sparked by the Democrats?  Would Harbar and Pelzer have been OK if they'd been in a BMW or Mercedes?

So many questions, so little duct tape -- and clothing. 

Really, though, I understand the concerns of the citizens who called police. I lived in a small town once. Your business is everyone's business. Plus, you can't be too careful these days.

And I applaud the police for taking it seriously, I do.

But why the charges?  Why the mug shots?  Once the truth became known, wasn't embarrassment punishment enough?  Do we really want to make "hanky panky in a moving vehicle" a criminal offense? Wasn't Prohibition bad enough?

I visited Portland recently.  Nice place.  Has dirt streets, with street signs and all, right in the middle of town.

What it doesn't have, I guess, is a police department with a sense of humor.

So my advice to Stephanie and Nikolas -- and all you other crazy lovebirds in Portland: Try M&Ms next year instead.

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Photo: Nikolas Harbar, left, and Stephanie Pelzner. Credit: Portland Police Bureau

Does the Miramonte case argue for cameras in the classroom?

Miramonte-Teacher-Students
The allegations of sexual abuse at Miramonte Elementary School have brought with them some predictable online chatter about whether it might be smart to place video cameras in classrooms as a deterrent to molestation and for evidence if it occurs anyway.

The debate about cameras in the classroom comes up from time to time -- a number of schools in England have them -- not just because of concerns about crime but as a way to evaluate teachers' work. After all, some underperforming teachers will put on their best act when the principal comes in to watch. There are stories of teachers who spend more time regaling their students with personal stories than actually teaching, and knowing that any segment of their teaching time might be viewed could be an incentive to stay on task. Taping would allow school districts to send excerpts anywhere in the world for experts to analyze and share their thoughts.

Right now, of course, this is a nonstarter for financial reasons. The state needs the money to put more teachers in classrooms before it can remotely worry about installing cameras to watch them. But every argument for recording the classroom has a strong argument to counter it. True, we're at the point of placing cameras on street corners, but is there no place for privacy? Is every whispered interchange between students in the back of the classroom then fodder for examination, investigation and action?

PHOTOS: Sex abuse scandal at Miramonte Elementary

Molesters might be deterred from crimes in the classroom, but they'd just look for places without surveillance. And while awareness of cameras in the classroom might prod a certain amount of conscientious behavior among teachers, it could also detract from instruction by making them nervous, stiff and more conscious of the need to look good on tape than the need to connect with students.

Is it time for the camera debate to return?

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Photo: A newly posted teacher leads her students out for recess at Miramonte Elementary school. Credit: Los Angeles Times

To ease overcrowding in L.A. jails, send inmates to 'Guantanamoon' [Ted Rall cartoon]

Export-prisoners-to-other-s
What are we to do about overcrowding in our jails? State Sen. Tony Strickland (R-Moorpark) has an idea. He recently drafted SB 983, which would allow counties to export prisoners to other states. Strickland's heart may be in the right place, but cartoonist Ted Rall couldn't help but poke fun at the proposal. (Newt Gingrich is totally going to be jealous that he didn't come up with the concept of 'Guantanamoon' first.) 

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--Alexandra Le Tellier

Cartoon: Ted Rall / For The Times

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The Opinion L.A. blog is the work of Los Angeles Times Editorial Board membersNicholas Goldberg, Robert Greene, Carla Hall, Jon Healey, Sandra Hernandez, Karin Klein, Michael McGough, Jim Newton and Dan Turner. Columnists Patt Morrison and Doyle McManus also write for the blog, as do Letters editor Paul Thornton, copy chief Paul Whitefield and senior web producer Alexandra Le Tellier.



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