The cops thought nobody was looking--but some folks made good use of a video camera, and now the whole world has seen a deeply disturbing and shocking vision: at least 10 officers, clearly out of control, wielding their batons like baseball bats, ferociously beating and kicking a black man who lay helplessly on the ground.
This shameful violence committed by Los Angeles police officers last Sunday night has drawn a collective national gasp of horror as the videotape has played time and again on television. The victim, Rodney King, was driving at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour on the Foothill Freeway but refused to pull over, according to the California Highway Patrol. The CHP requested assistance from the Los Angeles Police Department when King drove from freeway to surface streets in the Lake View Terrace section of the San Fernando Valley. Whatever King's actions, there can be no justification for the brutality.
Mayor Bradley, a former cop, has strongly condemned the violence and the improper use of the batons. He has also called for additional training for officers and asked the department to determine if there is a pattern of excessive use of force against minorities.
So far Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, however, has tempered his remarks with a caution against a quick judgment until a high-priority internal investigation is completed. Fair enough, perhaps; the chief is upholding his obligation to respect the rights of his officers. But what about his obligation to reassure the citizens of this city? Where was his outrage over the patently inappropriate use of force by his officers?
Obviously the chief does not endorse police brutality. But through his occasional shoot-from-the-hip, insensitive remarks over the years (chokeholds and blacks versus "normal" people; Latino officers who were "lazy," and other such comments), has Chief Gates unwittingly sent the wrong message to his troops? Does departmental culture tacitly encourage macho cops to use whatever they can get away with in their "war" against crime?
Because the victim was black, the incident inevitably raises questions about police and race relations in Los Angeles. Is there a disparity between the treatment of minority men, blacks particularly, and others? Is there a link between the recent official state findings of discrimination against black and Latino officers within the department and the treatment of black and Latino men who are stopped by police?
Businessman and former Lakers basketball player Jamaal Wilkes complained recently that LAPD officers stopped him, ordered him out of his car and handcuffed him because his registration was \o7 about\f7 to expire. Baseball Hall-of-Famer Joe Morgan recently won a federal jury award of $540,000 because an officer mistook him for a drug courier, roughed him up and illegally detained him at Los Angeles International Airport. Similar suits and settlements involving police misconduct cost the city more than $8 million last year alone.
The Los Angeles County district attorney's office is investigating the King incident to determine if the police officers broke any laws. The FBI is investigating to determine if a civil rights violation took place. Did the supervisor at the scene order his men to stop? Did other officers attempt to stop their colleagues? What would have happened to King's complaints of abuse if the incident had not been videotaped?
The frightening images, captured by amateur cameraman George Holliday, are a grim reminder of a time and place when all black people were fair game for white cops. That is not the case today. The entire Los Angeles Police Department should not be smeared by the improper actions of the officers involved in the beating.
But until the extent of the problem is identified and the public is fully reassured that this violation of policy will not happen again, top Los Angeles Police Department management must understand that a hot, bright spotlight is now on them.