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Sunil Dutta

(Photo by Kevin Scanlon)

{mosimage} Dutta is bristling with contradictions: He holds three degrees in plant biology that go unused. To satisfy his intellect — after toiling for years as an obscure ticket writer, internal-affairs officer and statistical expert — he now fires off controversial opinions for The Nation magazine, translates classical Indian poetry and is reviving an ancient Indian-music movement. If Dutta’s life seems unlikely for a cop, consider thathis brother is an international criminal and his father-in-law is the esteemed American poet and Iron John author Robert Bly.

Although the LAPD now includes former lawyers, corporate managers, teachers and even a one-time Continental Airlines pilot, Dutta is the only erstwhile plant biologist.

“He is different [from] a lot of people because he has a doctorate and comes from a whole different background,” says Lieutenant John Pasquariello. “A scientist is a bit unusual. He’s the first one I’ve met.”

Dutta’s is an unusual story. At the age of 11, while studying poetry with his grandfather in Jaipur, he saw his older brother, Kaushal, drawn into a criminal life as spellbinding as a Tom Clancy thriller. Kaushal started off as a petty thief, graduating to international fugitive after he stole $80,000 from the state of Rajasthan’s royal family.

While Dutta was sending political editorials to local newspapers, Kaushal was fleeing to Pakistan, where, according to Dutta, his brother joined up with Sikh terrorists. Kaushal then fled to Canada, assumed the identity of a dead Khalistani terrorist, got caught — and was eventually deported.

Dutta, then a college student, recalls how his brother was unable to convince Indian police that he was not the dead terrorist whose name he had assumed. He says Indian police beat his brother so badly that “he confessed to killing 25 people.” Finally, an Indian cop investigating Kaushal for his original crime — pilfering $80,000 — realized he was not the noted terrorist. Recalls Dutta, sarcastically, “They found out he had no connection to anything. That is how well torture works.”

Today, his brother is on the lam, having been released by an Indian judge to attend a fellowship program.

Dutta left India in the mid-’80s after he fell in love with an American girl and followed her to New York. “My first memory is of stepping inside a supermarket and gazing at numerous brands of yogurts,” he says. But despite the choices for consumers, he “never imagined that the richest country in the world would actually have poor and homeless.”

The brainy Dutta became a scientist, fulfilling his dream of helping poor Indian farmers through research. He studied plant hormones and disease, earning his Ph.D. in plant biology. His doctoral research focused on improving seed germination in crops.

But, after a few years as a plant biologist, he became disillusioned, quitting because “most of our research benefits big business,” he says. “Most farmers in most poor countries never benefit because their farm size is too small... These farmers don’t benefit from anything we do in the laboratories.”

After a brief stint teaching high school students and working with kids on probation, Dutta decided to became a cop. Partly, he says, to pay back society for his brother’s transgressions. “I don’t know if you understand this concept of shame in a traditional way,” he says, “but it is a devastating force.”

Even so, his parents were deeply disappointed in his decision. “Police have a very low reputation in India,” says Dutta.

In 1997, he completed his academy training and joined the LAPD. He used his new job as an opportunity to apply scientific methods to observe police culture and study human nature.

“The only thing I knew about was the Rodney King clips,” he says. “Initially, I was terrified and I had a hard time relating. But [police work] was so interesting. It was like being in a movie... I have been an observer ever since.”

Dutta started off as a rookie patrolling Van Nuys, yet somehow also managed to produce a CD and start a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting Dhrupad, the oldest form of North Indian classical music.

Later, in the West Valley Division, he dealt with traffic accidents and domestic violence calls. After a stint as a sergeant, he joined Internal Affairs. All the while — with some help from his father-in-law, Bly — he translated books by the Indian poet Ghalib.

The op-ed columns he’s authored have drawn varying degrees of praise and scorn from superiors and colleagues. In 2005, he attacked the response to the controversial death of 13-year-old Devin Brown, who was killed by police after a car chase. “Officers are not the racist, trigger-happy, brutal, heavy-handed monsters as portrayed in the media,” he wrote in the L.A. Daily News. “Officers reflect the society they are part of. All of us are the problem.”

In a February article in The Nation, Dutta criticized the death penalty as a “vestige of medievalism.” He’s critical of the criminal-justice system, writing that it is sometimes affected by “corrupt prosecutors, lying crime-lab analysts, crooked cops and blind judges who have railroaded innocent people onto death row.”

Still, he has managed to find a place at the LAPD. In 2006, somebody at Parker Center noticed his scientific talents. Dutta now supervises the Research and Planning Division’s Special Projects Unit, testing the latest equipment, products and software. Recently, he tested alternatives to the metal restraints used to control the mentally ill.

It’s been 10 years since Dutta became a cop, and 20 since he last saw his brother.

Asked if he has repaid society for his brother, he replies, “I don’t know if that could ever be done.”

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