In 1954 a satirist named Leonard Wibberley wrote a six part serial for the Saturday Evening Post magazine called “The Day New York Was Invaded.” The next year the story was published by Little, Brown and Company with a title most people recognize, The Mouse That Roared. The comedy became a Peter Sellers movie four years after that. It failed as a television series in 1963 but was successfully produced as a play. The play is still an amateur theater standard. It will probably half fill some high school auditorium somewhere this year.
The Mouse That Roared is about a tiny, backward and insignificant European Country called the Duchy of Grand Fenwick that declares war on the United States. Grand Fenwick expects to quickly lose and then apply for the same sort of American foreign aid the United States bestowed on Japan and Germany after World War II.
Grand Fenwick must lose. It does not want to win. Its army wears chain mail and is armed with bows and arrows. All it wants is the money. Unfortunately the prank takes off in unexpected directions. The United States does not notice the invasion for two months. Then officials mistake the medieval Fenwickians for space aliens.
Mouse Meets Wild One
I keep waiting for somebody to call the city of Hemet, California the Duchy of Grand Fenwick. So far no one else has so I will. Hemet is the Duchy of Grand Fenwick.
The plucky, little, Hemet Police Department is now at war with and under siege by the by the big, bad Vagos Motorcycle Club. Right this minute an agent in Beverly Hills is pitching this farce as “The Mouse That Roared meets The Wild One.” Clint Eastwood should play the police chief. The principal Vagos should be Shrek, the Hulk and Kermit the Frog. The happy ending will come when Hemet learns it has finally won that big pile of federal money and its police force has been saved.
Okay, probably the movie will fail. The great, Hemet motorcycle club war has already proven that the greater part of modern policing is theatrical performance. So a movie would just be superfluous. And, even if the movie was made nobody would laugh. The other thing the Hemet hoax proves is that in the last fifty years America has become a lot more stupid and a lot less fun.
Fifty years ago a cynical press would have instantly recognized that someone in Riverside County, on behalf of the Hemet Police, has made this whole Hemet story up. The story was invented because the Hemet Police really wants the money. Because Hemet has been hit particularly hard by the ongoing sequel to the Great Depression. And, keeping the peace has become an extravagant, insane cargo cult. The worth of modern police forces is now measured by how much money a department can get and spend on symbols of policing.
The Hero Has A Serious Problem
The current Hemet Police Chief is Richard Dana. Dana looks and sounds a lot like Clint Eastwood. He put on a badge in 1965. He took the Hemet job when he was 62. He replaced a man named Pete Hewitt who retired from the job at 61. Dana took the job because he “can’t imagine doing anything else.” And, also the job pays $163,000 a year. So besides pursuing his passion for goodness and justice Dana also gets to put a few dollars in his pocket. In his mid-sixties Dana still looks like a leading man. He might be able to stay on the job for another ten years, for another million and a half dollars. And, he is about to enter the fourth year of a five year contract.
When he took the job Dana’s supporters anticipated that he would be “growing” the Hemet Police Department. He was actually able to grow the force to 93 officers. The housing bubble made Hemet, which has about 70,000 residents, look like a budding metropolis. Then the Hemet of the future turned out to be just another illusion in a long con. The Los Angeles Times describes the city as “foreclosure-stricken.” Sales tax revenue dropped 27 percent in the first two months of 2009. During Dana’s administration the police force has declined to 68 officers.
To Serve And Protect Cops
The depression has left Hemet and Dana to fend largely for themselves. As part of the Economic Stimulus Package the Obama Administration promised $1 billion to keep cops employed. But nationally police forces applied for $8.3 billion to offset police layoffs. Hemet had to compete with all those other police departments in big mean cities like Oakland and Detroit for money. And, it probably did not help Hemet’s cause that crime in the city actually declined ten percent from 2007 to 2008.
Hemet applied for and did not get a $312,000 federal grant for traffic enforcement. The city also sought a $772,000 grant to pay for its police force and got less than half that amount. The police department also got a $213,000 grant to buy new computers and dispatch equipment but Hemet was forbidden to use the money to pay cops.
About a year ago the Hemet SWAT – of course Hemet has a “Special Operations Unit” – bought a $270,000 armored vehicle called a BearCat with a grant from the Department of Homeland Security. But again the money could not be used to pay for cop’s salaries. The money had to be used for an armored car.
Hemet invested, as many foundering police departments have, in the red light camera racket. The reason why these cameras are a racket is because they do not do what they are advertised to do and they make insiders rich by preying on innocuous citizens. Almost all of the infractions these robots ticket are for a rolling stop when a motorist makes a right turn on red.
Last summer, on Dana’s recommendation, Hemet signed a contract with a company named Nestor Traffic Systems. Nestor was in bankruptcy at the time. The penalty for a right turn on red after a rolling stop in Hemet was set at $446 and the city guaranteed Nestor Traffic Systems $60,000 a month. Anything more than $720,000 dollars a year, which works out to about 1,600 tickets, will be gravy for Hemet. So if the ticket robots issue a mere 9,100 tickets a year Dana can get his force back up to 93 officers. A study of the busiest intersection in Hemet discovered around 1,600 rolling stop right turns on red in a single day. So it seemed very feasible that the Hemet Police might be saved by robot red light cameras.
Save Our Police
Alas, by last fall Hemet was running about $800,000 in the red. Several radicals suggested that Hemet fire its entire police force and contract out the job of policing Hemet to another agency like the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. The situation had degenerated that far. People had begun to ask unthinkable questions. Did Sheriff Andy make $163,000 a year. Did Mayberry have a BearCat? A Swat team? How much did Barney Fife make? People began to ask rude, despicable, naïve, uninformed, stupid, sarcastic questions like that.
City Manager Len Wood, who was sitting next to Chief Dana at the time by the way, explained at a “roundtable:”
“I just don’t think that (contracting out police services) is a viable option. My experience includes contracting and full service. I found that while initially there might be some saving from contracting, what usually happens and what does happen is you lose control of how you set your rates. What generally happens is, whether it’s the county or whatever, they set the rates, they set the salary levels, they set the retirement levels and you’re going to pay for it. If the contract is cheaper, it usually means the service level has suffered considerably.
“The current state of the economy has put many police forces on the defensive. Thoughtful people of disparate political philosophies have questions why America needs so many police investigating and prosecuting so many people, why the police must be so elaborately militarized and technologically equipped and what will result from America imprisoning a higher percentage of its citizens than any other nation in the world.”
Gangs Gone Wild
Fortunately for Hemet, this is an interesting time in human evolution when people’s understanding of life and the world around them is shaped at least as much by mass media as by direct, actual experience. Mass media are also, for the most part, self-perpetuating, profit seeking, competitive businesses. And, in the two decades since Cops and America’s Most Wanted both debuted on Fox a symbiotic relationship has grown like a cancer connecting the mass media business to the police business.
A media critic named Colin Gunckel has named this weird development “Gangs Gone Wild.” Gunckel uses the phrase to describe one way conventional journalism has “begun to compete with and incorporate the conventions of reality programming.”
More and more, police get praise and cash for attracting media attention. As the world becomes increasingly “post-literate” the line between Sons of Anarchy, Gangland, America Most Wanted, TMZ, the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times grows ever fainter. Unless you live in a cardboard box you know that an ever more hysterical, mass-media fueled panic about safety and crime has been growing for years. And, even if you do live in a cardboard box you must have noticed that policing everywhere has become increasingly “performative” – a word coined by social scientists to describe how the mundane behavior of ordinary people has begun to mimic the behavior of Heidi and Spencer and Snooki and Tha Situation on MTV.
The cops are not immune to the social forces that buffet everyone else. Some police agencies, like the ATF, are very sophisticated about mass media. And, even if people are much stupider than they once were there will still pause to read the alarming phrases “Terrorist Threat” and “Outlaw Motorcycle Gang.”
There is always federal money to fight terrorism and gangs. Especially for smart, old cops who get how the world really works now. Much, but hardly all, of the money comes from a federal program called COPS. COPS is an acronym for Community Oriented Policing Services. According to its web site: “The COPS Office serves a noble purpose. In alignment with our component partners within the Department of Justice, our mission is to create safer communities across this country through the advancement of community policing.
“Community Policing, in its simplest terms, is about building relationships and solving problems. Our Office strives to make it possible for Police Chiefs and Sheriffs across the country to achieve these objectives in the most effective manner possible, consistent with their local requirements.”
And really, what could be a nobler than trying to save a town that is being overrun by menacing outlaw bikers? Policing in Hemet in general has become more performative as the survival of the department has become more tenuous. If people are going to be so rude as to ask why Hemet needs a police department then the Hemet police are left with no choice but to show them.
Last June, Hemet lost three police sergeants, a detective and two officers. And later that same month, a regional gang task force announced the arrests of 16 adults and one juvenile during a gang “sweep operation” of the Hemet-San Jacinto area. “We target violent gangs every day in the city of Hemet,” Dana said in his press release. “But today we gave them a little extra attention. The regional gang task forces are very effective in their communities, but when we bring them together like this, they are able to strike multiple targets at once. It’s impressive and effective. The citizens win and the bad guys lose when we pool our resources.”
In just the last month Hemet has absurdly over-reacted to a couple of “possible terrorist threats.”
On February 22nd a Filipino immigrant left a suitcase at the federal building in Hemet that houses the Social Security Administration and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Hemet cops evacuated the building, detonated the suitcase, and took the disgruntled man into custody. It was categorized as a bomb threat although there was never any bomb.
Just last Thursday, as Chief Dana was trumpeting another threat, police closed much of downtown Hemet because a homeless woman had abandoned two empty suitcases. She later claimed the cases were not hers after police destroyed them with a water cannon. The remote controlled destruction of the two empty suitcases was supervised by a “hazardous materials team.”
Lord Deliver Us From The Fury Of The Vagos
All of this is the context in which Hemet police and the Riverside County District Attorney announced the arrest last Wednesday, Saint Patrick’s Day, of at least 30 members of the Vagos Motorcycle Club.
Riverside (California) County District Attorney Rod Pacheco called a press conference to announce that some unknown number of police, but more than 400, from more than “sixty local and federal police agencies” raided 94 locations in four states. Pacheco and Chief Dana, who also attended the media event, both implied in the strongest possible way that the raids were retaliation for a series of attacks on police in Hemet by the Vagos.
Pacheco even gave the purported series of raids an ATF style name. He called them “Operation Everywhere.” But unlike most large scale, multi-agency police operations, neither Pacheco nor Dana nor anyone else has ever produced an indictment, a list of departments involved, a list of arrestees or an elaboration of the crimes with which they have been charged. The details of “Operation Everywhere” are like Joe McCarthy’s list of hundreds of known communists in the State Department. The details are a piece of paper to be waved around in plain sight but never read.
Last New Year’s Eve somebody improvised a way to fill the “Hemet/San Jacinto Valley Gang Task Force” headquarters with natural gas. It was very smelly. Somebody was forced to find a wrench, turn off the gas, and let the building air out. The more time that passed the more dramatically this “deliberate act” has been described. Last week a Hemet cop described it as an attempt to take “out half a city block.” In February a zip gun was attached to a black steel gate. When a cop opened the gate the zip gun fired. The more days pass the closer the small caliber bullet is said to have come to the cop’s head. On March 5th, somebody attached an explosive device, presumably a pipe bomb, to another cop’s car.
The fact that neither Pacheco or Dana would actually come out and say that the Vagos were attacking police in Hemet only emphasized the mendacity of both these men and the hoax they have perpetrated for their own cynical gain. Pacheco and Dana just stood next to a table covered with Vagos paraphernalia and insisted that the press draw its own conclusions. The press has been more than willing to oblige.
That almost everything Pacheco and Dana said at the news conference was an obvious lie has gone unreported. The story continues to run. Yesterday the story was advanced by “news” that a threat to bomb “a police vehicle in retaliation for the Vagos arrests” had been phoned into Hemet Police headquarters. Saturday night, television reporters in Los Angeles were still reporting this story at the top of the news and doing their “stand-ups” outside a dramatically fortified Hemet Police Department.
Thomas Watkins, who is flamboyantly and incompetently covering the story for the Associated Press, reported the other day that, “Investigators are trying to determine what may have prompted an outlaw motorcycle gang to set three booby traps on gang enforcement officers in Riverside County.” Watkins does not hesitate to report as fact that the Vagos have gone to war with Hemet. He goes on to report that, “one theory is that members of the Vagos gang could have been affronted when a gang enforcement unit in Hemet monitored their group as they attended a funeral.”
Sure. Or maybe the Hemet Police Department is just looking for some attention and some money.
Letting The Story Run
Sunday morning this story ran in China.
And, the AP was reporting, “The tense atmosphere surrounding a California police department plagued by booby trap attacks has been stepped up a notch following the latest threat against officers… About 30 members of the Vagos, California’s largest motorcycle gang, were arrested in Riverside County on Wednesday, as part of a crackdown across the state and in Arizona, Nevada and Utah. The gang specializes in methamphetamine sales, identity theft and violence…Dana said someone he believes may have been a gang member tried to get into a news conference Thursday at the district attorney’s office in Riverside. The person was turned away, he said, because he didn’t have a press credential.”
Heaven forbid any outsider should get into the press conference. That might mark the end of the world. Better to let the real pros like Tom Watkins cover this stinking, heaping pile of news product.
Sunday morning this story was being headlined: “The evolution of crime: Urban terrorism.” That angle on the story was coined by Jerry Brown, who is one of the three multi-millionaires in the running to become the next Governor of California.
“It is incredible and even unprecedented for police officers here to be subject to terrorist attack,” Brown said at the news conference which skeptical journalist were forbidden to attend.. “We have seen it south of the border, but not here yet.”
Hemet hasn’t gotten its money yet but it has already gotten more attention than the Duchy of Grand Fenwick ever did. So far this phony news story manufactured on behalf of the money hungry Hemet Police Department seems to have made a pretty good start.
The only real question is how long news coverage of this absurd hoax is going to go on.