“In the psychological sense, denial is a defense mechanism in which a person, faced with a painful fact, rejects the reality of that fact.
They will insist that the fact is not true despite what may be overwhelming and irrefutable evidence.”
—By Dr. Stephen Juan for the (United Kingdom) Register, Sept. 29, 2006.
In 2002, (then Lieutenant) Peter Whittingham assembled a dozen or so members of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Southwest Area Gang
Impact Team to serve a warrant in the Crenshaw District’s Baldwin Village apartment complex, notoriously known as the “Jungle.” As they executed the warrant in this stronghold of the Black P-Stone street gang, a neighborhood elder of perhaps 70 or 80 years old began hurling allegations of police harassment at them.
Seeking to neutralize the situation, Whittingham crossed the street to explain the situation, and attempt to pacify the irate citizen. Refusing his overtures to have a civilized conversation, she remained on her second floor balcon spewing contentions of racism and unfair treatment as the officers completed their duties. The suspect, wanted for armed robbery and a gang-related shooting, was apprehended (along with firearms recovered from both his apartment and car) and later convicted, but the incensed matron remained dissatisfied.
Whittingham’s experiences with gangs go back to his native Montego Bay, Jamaica. His brother, a member of one of the many gangs that frequent that resort area, was brutally beaten by law enforcement after he refused to inform on his associates. Alone with his battered sibling on a tropical street, young Whittingham cried in vain for assistance. This traumatizing episode prompted him to escape this caustic environment, and with the intent of improving become a lawman himself, first in Jamaica, and then in the United States with the LAPD.
Recently retired as a captain, Whittingham believes that community denial is a significant obstacle to improve relations between law enforcement and the citizens needing their services. He attributes this to the (justifiably) horrendous reputation peace officers have garnered over the past decades. Reforms, a staple in recent years, are hamstrung by resistance within organizations charged with the public’s welfare.
Within the LAPD, denial rears its contrary naure as well, as Whittingham elaborates.
“…it looks better for everybody to show that all the money they are receiving/spending on gang reduction efforts/strategies is working,” he says of the massive federal, municipal and state funding endowed annually to police.
Avoiding the bite off reality
“There is an immutable fact about denial: it does not work—long term.
Reality always wins. And when it does, the next step in the process is blame, which shifts responsibility onto someone or something else.
—Carl Alasko Ph.D. for “Psychology Today,” April 23, 2012.
In this, Whittingham is in agreement with gang interventionist Skipp Townsend, who notes the vast fortunes allocated to community improvement. Too much of the money. Townsend contends, gets into the hands of well meaning but ineffective academics that place emphasis on an overly clinical approach in stead of focusing on grass roots issues. The lion’s share of this funding, Townsend says, is spent on research and salaries.
Townsend’s path to his current post as executive director of the nonprofit 2nd Call (https://www.2ndcall.org/) began during his adolescence in the West Adams district. His youthful inclination to go to the movies, hang out with his friends, etc., was stymied by persecution from the local Crips faction terrorizing the community. His crew in turn formed their own “Rolling 20s Blood” set to counter this threat. His mother, aware of the realities of the streets, worked extra hard to put him through Catholic school as a buffer, but was blinded by her own type of denial in terms of the degree of danger confronting her offspring.
The late 1970s and 1980s saw fistfights turn to firearms, and then automatic weapons, as the influx of narcotics upped the ante in the neighborhood battlefield.
Jail and age give Townsend maturity, prompting him to seek out a more temperate environ for his own family. As he saw the seeds of his former life budding in his growing brood, he took measures towards becoming the gang interventionist he is today, with a more pragmatic approach towards this vicious cycle.
“I can see not just what they’re (youngsters) running to,” Townsend declares, “I can see where they running from.”
Denial is not just a river in Egypt—it is a force in all of our lives “Actually, denial is probably essential for psychological survival.
If we were aware of everything, the mind couldn’t process it all.”
—Jennifer L. Kunst, Ph.D., for “Psychology Today,” August 31, 2011
Needless-to-say, this technique of enabling is not exclusive to the Black community. “A” was a seasoned veteran of the Los Angeles County probation system when circumstances directed him south to Orange County, commonly referred to as “the O.C.” The demographic there is similar, with subtle differences, specifically the nearly 200,000 Vietnamese who settled there after the Indochina War 40 years ago.
Vietnamese society, like other newly arrived ethnicities, is insular and mistrustful of authorities and outsides. Their own growing problem of delinquency was camouflaged by the short stature and delicate physiques of these Southeast Asian natives. None-the-less, “A” had a few close calls wherein gangs of these newcomers attempted to carjack some of the high end foreign automobiles he drove to work.
At home, their overworked parents could not or would not accept the malfeasance of their youngsters, until they were actually incarcerated and placed in the system. A quick view of their personal files provided an inkling of the reasoning. Almost uniformly these budding desperados were straight “A” students, unlike the Black and Hispanics he’d been accustomed to in L.A.
When these whip-smart book worms took a break from their diligent efforts, their parents raised no eyebrows when their kids announced they were going out to “play” (the O.C. code for gangbanging).
The stereotype of scholarly quiet, high-chieving Asian students is generally flattering, especially to newly arrived parents who’ve sacrificed so much and placed so much hope on the future of their progeny. When the truth is otherwise, it is then particularly painful.
Handling the truth
Getting back to law enforcement, the sterling reputation of the LAPD is by now tarnished forever, in light of the Rampart scandal, the Rodney King beating, the Christopher Dorner affair, etc. The old guard within hat venerated organization still takes a dim view of those pushing for change-especially within its ranks. None suffered more than Sgt. Fred Nichols, the LAPD’s highly regarded expert in the use-of-force techniques. Widely admired in and outside the department, his fortunes changed when he testified about the improprieties utilized to contain King before the County Grand Jury.
Afterwards he was summarily moved around to less prestigious (and more nerve-racking) postings before leaving left the department on a stress pension. Shortly before his death, he acknowledged the price he paid for his candor in court.
“If you make waves in this department, it becomes close to impossible to ever promote again.”
Nichols’ torture ended when he checked himself into a non-descript hotel. He killed himself there in May 1991.
Even now, Whittingham declares that there is a cadre within the department that still believes the officers involved in that infamous March 3, 1991 traffic stop in Lake View Terrace did nothing wrong in the commission their duties. Whether we acknowledge them or not, he noted, these problems will not go away.
“We (the department) kill more of our own than the criminals,” Whittingham said.