How I Met LAPD Officers Bobby Romo And Steven Valenzuela On Vermont Avenue Yesterday At 3 AM And What Happened Next

LAPD Sergeant Bobby Romo (36915), a twenty year veteran of LAPD.

I can’t sleep, so I walk. Three or four miles at 3 or 4 AM does wonders. I’ve been doing this for years without incident. People out at that time have their own private concerns and don’t seem to be much interested in interactions, which I’m also not. There is a certain sense of community among those of us on foot, though. For instance we like to say good morning or utilize some other way of signalling we mean no harm, but no one’s out there looking for conversation.1 I’ve walked hundreds of miles of LA streets in the middle of the night and have never spoken to a cop for any reason until yesterday.

Some time after 3 AM I was returning home from such a walk when I saw that the street I intended to use was blocked by yellow cop tape and there was an empty but lights-spinning cop car guarding the tape. No people, officers or otherwise, were visible on the entire taped block face. I took what I thought would be an effective detour around the cop conclave but when I got around to the street I live on I could see it was taped as well.

LAPD Officer Steven Valenzuela, who’s been on the job since 2018 and is the flashlight-pointing order-barker of the story.

I was already on Vermont when I saw the first of what ultimately turned out to be only three cops guarding the two block faces. I was on the east side of Vermont looking to cross over to walk west on my street. Also, at that time of day Vermont, which is extraordinarily straight and flat around here, is not only entirely empty but can be seen to be entirely empty for miles in either direction. So I stepped off the curb and asked the cop if I could cross.

He pointed his flashlight directly in my eyes and told me to get back on the sidewalk. I told him I was going home and could I use the unblocked portion of the sidewalk to access my street. He barked a few more orders and I asked him for his card. He said a bunch of aggressive and incomprehensible stuff and eventually gave it to me. I asked him for his partner’s card and, as if he didn’t understand what the word “partner” means in the English language, he told me that that wasn’t his partner, it was his sergeant. Blah, blah, blah, the partner2 was on the phone so I went home briefly and then came back to get partner’s card.

When I got there he was off the phone, so I asked him for his card. Instead of giving it to me directly he felt moved to lecture me on my deportment. Naturally I told him to fuck off with that, and then he said that if I was going to curse at him I could wait for it. None of this exchange was especially interesting,3 but I eventually did get his card, on which he’d written his serial number, which was what I was after. It is 36915.

I turned off my video, although now I’m sorry that I did, but it was late and I wasn’t thinking particularly clearly after having already walked about three miles on only a couple hours sleep. I leaned against the wall and looked up the partner on Watch the Watchers. Wow! There he is! Sergeant Bobby Romo! So I started to walk home and as I left I said cheerfully and normally “Goodnight, Bobby!”

He hadn’t written his first name on the card, they never do, so I imagine he wasn’t prepared to hear it coming out of my mouth. He said “Goodnight!” in return, as cheerfully and normally as if I were human. Then, after a beat, he said “Stop right there, sir.” On hearing this his two subordinates4 began to move silently toward me in the street like guard dogs positioning themselves to attack when they see their cue.

But then Bobby changed his mind. He said something along the lines of “You know what, sir, go on home. I thought you were in the crime scene but now I can see that you’re not.” Which is also bullshit. I was more than 10 feet from the crime scene tape, and it was between Bobby and myself. He would not have been able to see me without seeing a four inch yellow stripe across my body. It’s much more plausible that he became enraged when he realized I’d not only learned his first name but had used that knowledge to trick him into treating me as human even if only for an instant.

Cops take so very many pains to avoid letting anyone know who they are. It must really matter to them that we don’t know. They do not want to be seen so Bobby decided to punish me for my audacity. Perhaps he changed his mind because I’m a 60 year old fairly respectable looking white man who walks with a cane, and so conceivably not a safe target for attitude adjustment, or whatever satanic euphemism cops have for the process he’d decided to spare me.

And, to me, this is the interesting part. With very, very little effort I made Bobby’s workday very unpleasant for him. He had to spend 20 minutes pretending to write his four letter name on a piece of paper while I cursed at him. I tricked him into addressing me as his equal in front of his two subordinates. In order to stave off the consequential loss of face, as I’m seeing it, he decided to attack me but then, again in the presence of his subordinates, backed down from that as well.

It can’t be nice for anyone to go to work and feel that everyone hates you. Seventy-seven percent of Angelenos want fewer cops in their neighborhoods.5 LAPD is down a thousand officers from previous levels. They can’t hire enough cops and cops keep quitting. Political efforts to defund and abolish police are essential, but individual, direct, stochastic shaming is also effective. And there are so many more of us than there are of them, at least 400 Angelenos per cop.

I’m privileged to be able to act like this because I’m white, I’m male, I own a house, I’m elderly, I have a job I can’t be fired from because of my political beliefs, and I operate fairly publicly. Not everyone is safely able to be rude to cops, but some of us are. With work, but not too much work, each cop could experience hundreds of incidents of rudeness, perhaps one per day. Any particular cop may not quit under this barrage, but some will. Stochastic shaming is effective.

And the tactic gets more effective the more it works. As the number of cops goes down the number of Angelenos per cop goes up, so each remaining cop will feel the pain more often. Will it work? Who knows, but I feel like it’s worth trying given that the cost to me is nothing but in aggregate it might become high to LAPD.

There are a few things I might do differently if this ever happens again. First, I won’t turn video off ever, and will turn it on immediately. Second, I’ll have the necessary tools more accessible on my phone. These are currently and the incomparable Who’s that Cop bot on Twitter. Third, I will think more about the utility of hostile banter. On the one hand it may raise the cop’s emotional temperature to a useful pitch, but on the other hand it doesn’t seem to affect them much so that it ends up costing me more than it costs them. I don’t know right now.

Finally, I wish I had looked up Stevie while I was still out on the street. Maybe wishing him a pleasant evening as well as Bobby would have been even more effective. Additionally, rudeness or cursing may not even be necessary, although I probably can’t stop myself. It’s probably just enough to ask them for their cards, which they are required to give you, look up their names and use them. They’ll know why you’re doing it and maybe that will be enough.

Asymmetric tactics like this which some of us can use cheaply but cost the cops something significant are valuable. The cops’ ability to exploit reverse asymmetries is essential to their mission and we need tactics to counter such traps. It takes a cop a minute to arrest someone and essentially any amount of time and money to handle the consequences.

They use this tactic so explicitly, so consciously, that their technical vocabulary has a phrase for it — You can beat the rap but you can’t beat the ride. Thus we also need effective, safe, appropriately asymmetric ways to burn their time, to frustrate them, to make them question their commitment to their work, to encourage them to quit. Maybe this is one of them?

  1. Cars are a different matter. If they do anything unexpected, especially slow down or stop ahead I usually evade them unless there’s a clear explanation for the behavior. Unless they’re cops, in which case it’s essential to walk by them as if I’m not up to anything, which in fact I am not.
  2. Sergeant, whatever.
  3. You can watch my video here if you’re interested. I’m not entirely happy with my own performance, and although there’s a lot I could say about Romo’s rhetorical tactics, like I said, none of it’s that interesting. Just stupid cop banter meant to remind its targets that they don’t have to make sense because they’re allowed to kill you if they want to. It has in the past felt worthwhile to me to dunk on cops’ idiotic rhetorical styles, but lately it feels more like doing so is falling into their sticky trap and agreeing to be ineffective. They’re not trying to make sense anyway. As Adolf Eichmann purportedly once said, “we do not speak to convey facts but to create a certain impression.”
  4. One of these was the one who’d shined his light in my eyes. His serial is 43551 and his name is Steven Valenzuela. He’s been on the job since 2018 and makes around $150K per year.
  5. The link is to a tweet with a screenshot of a now-deleted LAPD poll tweet. I’m using Twitter front-end Nitter because fuck Elon Musk.

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