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Chief Gates Should Do the Right Thing

TIM RUTTEN

March 22, 1991|TIM RUTTEN

"Why doesn't he just go?" my friend from out of town asked, fixing me with a look at once puzzled and provocative.

Ah, Daryl Gates, I thought, again . . . still .

"Well," I said, "in the end, I suppose it really is a question of principle."

That, of course, is precisely the problem. On questions of principle, the distinction between stubbornness and steadfastness is crucial. One gives rise to willful self-assertion, the other to responsibility. And it is the confusion between the two that lies at the heart of the crisis Gates continues to inflict on Los Angeles.

What began as a wave of popular revulsion against a single incident of horrifying official violence has become a flood of rage and suspicion. These forces were not set in motion by politicians or the media, but by the facts. And, unless he really believes he can discharge his duties in a vacuum exhausted of those facts, it is time for Gates to accept the honorable retirement to which his long service entitles him.

As they have emerged over the last week, several of those facts are particularly significant: Shortly before Rodney King, a black man, was brutally assaulted by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department, overtly racist messages were exchanged via computer between the squad car assigned to Laurence M. Powell and Timothy Wind, two of the policemen indicted for their part in the incident, and officers in another car.

The message sent from the Powell and Wind car described a dispute between members of an African-American family as something "right out of 'Gorillas in the Mist.' "

The occupants of the other car responded, "HaHaHaHa. Let me guess who be the parties."

After King was beaten, messages sent from Powell and Wind's car joked about the incident and, in one instance, said, "I haven't beaten anybody this bad in a long time." The officers responding, said, "I thought you agreed to chill out for a while. . . ."

It is more than significant that neither Powell nor Wind ever has been disciplined for excessive use of force.

Stacey C. Koon, the sergeant who shot King with an electric dart gun, also exchanged lighthearted messages with whoever was manning the watch commander's desk at Foothill Division. That officer sarcastically referred to King as a "lizard."

Koon, too, has been indicted for his part in the affair and for his ham-fisted attempt to cover up his and his fellow officers' misconduct.

The picture suggested by these messages is far different from the one Gates painted when he first called the attack on King an "aberration." The officers who spoke in this fashion had no fear of expressing the most primitive and offensive racial epithets over an open, recorded channel of official communication.

Similarly, the men who brutalized King apparently had no compunction about committing their atrocity in the presence of more than 20 uniformed witnesses. Those who subsequently filed false reports concerning the incident obviously had no anxiety that any of those witnesses would contradict their lies.

People who behave in this heedless way are not acting out an aberration, but what is--for them, at least--business as usual.

I had an inkling of this recently, during a conversation in which I asked an LAPD officer how often he heard other officers express racial slurs. "Well," he said, "you hear sort of racial jokes and stuff all the time. But it's hard to tell what it really means. It's like, you know, calling Baldwin Hills 'the jungle,' like a lot of guys do."

Baldwin Hills is an expensive neighborhood of stylish homes, where many of Los Angeles' African-American professionals live. I asked the officer, why the nickname?

"If you ask for the record, it's because there are a lot of trees and shrubs up there. It's real green. If you're asking off the record, it's because that's where the jungle bunnies live."

Clearly, the verbal affronts to Rodney King's human dignity committed by uniformed officers of the LAPD were not aberrations. Neither, as the record demonstrates, was the violence he suffered. Last year, the Los Angeles City Council approved nearly $11 million in settlements growing out of more than a dozen cases of police misconduct.

A dozen such incidents do not comprise an aberration, but a pattern--a systemic failure to root out racist police officers and to deal in a decent, evenhanded manner with all this city's people.

When an institution fails in this way over a prolonged period of time, those who have its conduct in their charge cannot escape responsibility. The standards--the principles, if you will--that apply are not those appropriate to a private individual or even to a minor civil servant, but to a public official.

In parliamentary systems, this is called "ministerial responsibility." It recognizes the fact that when an institution itself fails, it is irrelevant whether the individual at the top is personally culpable. All that really matters is that they had the responsibility.

As a committed, indeed principled, social and political conservative, Daryl Gates frequently has spoken on behalf of those well-tested ideas that are at that philosophy's core. Among them are the notion that a mature liberty fulfills itself in the assumption of communal responsibilities, as well as the assertion of individual rights. This is the ethic of service to the common good of which the chief has so often spoken.

Given Gates' personal strength, the relative weakness of the Bradley administration in its waning days and the shambling timidity of the City Council, "this chief," as he calls himself, probably can hold on to his job for some time to come.

But to do so, he will have to watch--if not encourage--the bitter polarization of the city along racial lines. A stubborn man might do that; a principled one surely would not.

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