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Straight to Video 

Dog Bites turns into a film critic to help us understand the Bayview police video scandal

Wednesday, Dec 14 2005
When we heard about the racist in-house video produced by a San Francisco police officer at the Bayview Station and made public by an outraged Mayor Gavin Newsom and Police Chief Heather Fong last week, we, too, were fit to be tied. The scenes had been up on officer/filmmaker Andrew Cohen's personal Web page for the past month, had gotten more than 250 hits -- and nobody sent the link to Dog Bites? For shame, San Francisco, for shame.

And when we finally settled down to watch the thing, with a bowl of popcorn and an extra-large Coke, we found ourselves curiously underwhelmed. Perhaps, in the wake of the 49ers' notorious public-relations training video that emerged earlier this year, our standards for socially abhorrent in-house film reels have become too demanding, too refined. But really, all we're asking for is a cogent plot, some sympathetic characters, and production values that at least make it seem like the hopelessly unfunny white guy who directed it doesn't fill all of his spare time by watching early-'80s porn.

The SFPD video, sadly, fails on all these counts. Its opening skit, "Traffic Cop Gone Wild," has promise, with a self-aggrandizing officer ordering a female motorist to get out of her car and turn around slowly, so he can better ogle her. But any hope of genuine dramatic tension (or subtlety ... remember subtlety?) is lost when the woman emerges from her vehicle to the strains of "Smooth," that terribly overplayed duet between Carlos Santana and Rob Thomas. At this point, it might as well have been a Diet Coke commercial.

And, honestly, things don't get too much better. The 49ers video gave us scantily clad women, professional football players depicting homeless people, and a veritable slew of racial epithets. The SFPD tape, in contrast, is quite tame. Oh, sure, there's a scene in which an officer absent-mindedly runs over a black homeless woman, causing her to scream about white cops as she flips him off. But we're never sure what the director wants us to think here: Are we supposed to hate white people, or black? Are cops the good guys, or villains? And why is all of the footage so grainy?

Our popcorn cooled, our Coke flat, we took another glance at the screaming banner headlines in the Chronicle and winced. We'd never be one to suggest that our crime-fighting mayor might be a bit too enthusiastic about running in front of cameras and decrying politically incorrect behavior. And there's no question this video was produced in poor taste and at the expense of taxpayers who desperately need more from their Police Department -- especially in crime-and-poverty-stricken neighborhoods like the Bayview. But from the clips we've seen and heard about, we can't help but wonder if there are scandals around town just a tad more deserving of our mayor's time and energy. Maybe he was addressing Dog Bites when he said at his press conference, announcing that 20 officers had been suspended: "With all due respect to those who say this is much ado about nothing ... I think common sense will dictate when you make fun of women, you make fun of gays, you make fun of the African-American community and the Asian community, that's wrong."

To which we can only add: And Latinos, Mr. Mayor? Since when is it OK to make fun of them?

Ballsy Reportage

Over the years, the Los Angeles Times has won its share of plaudits and Pulitzers for investigative reporting, whether writing about medical mishaps at a municipal hospital or the two-fisted business tactics of Wal-Mart. Such hard-hitting journalism, you might say, takes balls. Just don't wait for the Times to say so.

"Balls," that is.

Earlier this month, the Times published a front-page article about a wayward federal informant named Essam Magid; the piece ran more than a week after SF Weekly's own cover story on Magid ("Bait and Snitch," Nov. 23). A Yemeni immigrant and one-time suspected drug trafficker, Magid boasts a history of misconduct as a paid informant for the DEA, FBI, and other federal agencies. Among various indiscretions, court records show, Magid revealed his undercover status and the names of federal agents to the subject of an FBI probe, and he's under investigation for allegedly threatening a witness and committing perjury.

Magid's antics were exposed in August during the federal trial of Nabil Ismael, the owner of a corner store in the Outer Mission whom authorities accused of brokering numerous cocaine and methamphetamine deals. Prior to trial, Ismael's attorney, Ian Loveseth, sought to persuade him to accept a four-year plea deal offered by prosecutors. A devout Muslim, Ismael refused, insisting that Magid had set him up. "If I said I did those things," Ismael told SF Weekly, "it would be lying to God." His resolve paid off in a big way -- the feds dismissed all charges against Ismael two days after his trial started -- and inspired attorney Loveseth to bestow an earthy nickname on his client to reflect Ismael's unwavering self-belief: "More Balls Than Brains."

Tame stuff, by the linguistic standards of altweeklies, cable TV, church groups, and pretty much the rest of the planet. At the Times, however, the prospect of printing "balls" apparently elicited the sort of sharp gasp not heard since Victorian times. Rather than publish such a frothy word, or simply excise any reference to Ismael's sobriquet, the Times stated that Loveseth "gave Ismael a crass nickname that unfavorably compared the size of his brain to another part of his anatomy."

Pardon our potty mouth, Ye Olde Times, but what the fuck does that mean? "Another part of his anatomy" -- that could refer to anything from his balls to his uvula. Ever heard of that hoary journalism concept called clarity? It's almost as old as prudishness.

Apparently, Dog Bites wasn't alone in trying to untangle the Times' snarled syntax. Loveseth, peeved that the paper made him sound as if he had mocked Ismael's IQ, requested a clarification. It ran the day after the story appeared and stated, in part, "that the nickname unfavorably compared the size of Ismael's brain to another part of his anatomy, which could be read as a denigration of Ismael's intelligence. In coining the nickname, Loveseth sought to capture Ismael's bravery."

Well, that's much clearer.

"They made me look like a fucking asshole," Loveseth says, in language that no doubt would cause Times editors to furiously bat their eyelids and, possibly, faint. "It was a moronic attempt to deal with the nickname."

Curious to find out if Times editors enforce a naughty-word policy, Dog Bites dialed up the paper's spokesman, David Garcia, who responded by e-mail. "Our goal is to maintain a clean, dignified, and civil tone in all our writing," he explained. "We try to be extremely careful and conservative with obscene, profane or offensive words and assess their use on a case-by-case basis. There is no list of banned words."

How lovely. But rumor has it that new Times Editor Dean Baquet is mulling a policy that would require all reporters to wear chastity belts. Now that would take some balls. (Martin Kuz)


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