Friendly Fire: The Illusion of Justice (Book Review)

Friendly Fire: The Illusion of Justice by Adam Bereki.  Costa Mesa: Spartan Associates, 2010.

Reviewed by Daniel C. Tsang
Special to the Surf City Voice

I made the mistake of initially dismissing as a flimsy account Adam Bereki’s slim (160-page) personal narrative about being drummed out of the Huntington Beach Police Department because of his sexual orientation .  But on re-reading his book, Friendly Fire: The Illusion of Justice, I came to realize that his book is a stunning indictment of what the author perceived as the deep machismo, laced with homophobia, of the Surf City’s police department

Adam Bereki, . Photo courtesy Mike Lee of Starlight Photography

Current Police Chief  Ken Small, who headed the department during Bereki’s short tenure, is quick to dismiss (in the Orange County Register) Bereki’s work as “fiction”.  Yet Bereki tells a believable if horrifying  story where truth is stranger than fiction, such as when a trusted mentor turned on him by simulating anal sex with him during police training exercises and another fellow cop made jokes about it being his “day off” when someone was reported masturbating in public.  He also got demerits for being gung ho about police work, thus  putting his lazier fellow cops to shame.  In fact, his personnel  evaluations  miraculously shot up when he briefly slacked off and in his own recounting, did what many other cops did: read a book, sit under a tree, or browsed the Internet during work hours.  Bereki  also claims most cops file reports that are never acted upon; more than once, he felt tempted to tell crime victims that dark secret.

Bereki, passionate about police work since he started in the Explorer program as a teenager, went to police academy and was initially welcomed into his hometown police department.  But soon rumors of his sexual preference began spreading, especially after his housemate, a cop whom Bereki viewed as his mentor, “Junior,” found him in bed with another guy, who was actually a fellow gay cop, “Justin,” from Laguna Beach Police Department . It didn’t matter that the two were zonked  out drunk after a night on the town in L.A.  The mentor  went to the “police association’s bar and told everybody the story.”  His tormentor would later scream at him, according to Bereki, saying: “I don’t want gay rumors or roommates in this house.  I don’t know where you and Brad have been doing up in LA, but that’s where all the fags go.” Brad was another friend of Bereki’s.

Nor  did it help when a boyfriend ratted on his being gay to Internal Affairs, and the tape of that phone call was played back to him.  Also, one day, in the pocket of his shirt hanging in his locker, he found a torn-out OC Weekly sex ad showing a young escort with “pretty hair” and nice smile and the word “Curious?” underneath, adjacent to a toll-free number.  Obviously someone knew.

To survive in this workplace hell, he tried to still hide in the closet, while pursuing support elsewhere. He found none.  The largest lobbying group for gay establishment causes, Human Rights Campaign, did not offer him even moral support, he relates. So he felt all alone as he initiated steps to file harassment complaints against his colleagues and supervisors.

Although Chief Small told him to report each incident, and he was given the option of administrative leave, he chose to join the Detectives Bureau.  But soon there, he was harassed.    He was also removed from running the Explorer program (apparently because someone thought a gay cop should not be in charge of youth).  He finally went on administrative leave, or as he put in a chapter heading: “In Jail at Home”.

For years consumed by his situation, over time, he gathered over several dozen boxes of documents to bolster his case, having taken notes every time an incident occurred.  In time, he filed a lawsuit against the city; in 2008, the city and he came to an agreement:  He would  get $150,000 up front, and retire as “psychologically disabled,” allowing him to receive a medical pension  — tax free –  totaling 2.5 million over his lifetime.

The book’s redeeming feature is his own  harrowing story of how he turned from victim of discrimination and harassment  to one who took control of his life, ironically only after a trip to Thailand, after his retirement. There he befriended local  gay street hustlers and enjoyed the various island beaches in the Southeast Asian country.  The Redshirts had occupied the Bangkok airport, but he was in no hurry to leave, given he was in “paradise.”

In the end, he also changed his views about police work.  Instead of an “us versus them” mentality steeped in the use of violence, he astonishingly recommends the human – and humane touch.  He writes: “You can’t have an “us against them” mindset on the street and then wonder why management has the same mindset toward its  employees… If you are an asshole to people on the street, chances are you treat your family the same way…”

A story he tells in the book is apropos here.  A drug user he had arrested one day saw him and rode up to him on his motorbike to thank Bereki for changing his life.  Because the rookie cop had treated him humanely, the druggie remembered him.  Bereki  says the man he arrested would became a friend.

His critique of current police practices could apply just as well to foreign policy and to all the wars the U.S. engages, as well as to the War on Terrorism, Obama’s or not.  He notes: “We fail to see how we share the same mindset as criminals, carrying out crimes on others and the rest of the world, though from a ‘just’ standpoint.

Why can’t cops be more like human beings, reaching across barriers of class, race and sexual orientation,  Bereki seems to ask. He suggests a “revolutionary idea” for law enforcement, one that “reflects our highest value systems for our vision of service to others.”   For “significant and lasting change to happen” it would take an “enlightened” person in upper management, he argues.  He writes that he wants a police department to change from one of “dysfunction, violence and disease” to one of “love, health and peace.”  Naïve?  Perhaps.  But maybe someone will hear his plea, and it won’t be Chief Small.

In sum, this is one brave gay man who survived harassment on the job from macho police officers to ultimately overcome victimhood and find peace with himself.

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