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Police Develop Wary Courtesy, Thick Skin

March 24, 1991|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Robert Goring tells it, he was hanging out at a Watts liquor store the other day when a Los Angeles Police Department patrol car pulled up. This made him nervous. A black man, he assumed that the officers had flagged him as a suspicious character.

"I was already reaching for my identification," Goring, 42, would recall, "and getting ready to lay on the hood."

But the cop who rolled down the window surprised him, asking cheerily: "How'd you like that rain last night?" And that was the end of the encounter.

This is a peculiar time on some of Los Angeles' tougher streets, a time of delicate manners and wariness. Customary rules of engagement between patrol officers and potential troublemakers have been revised--at least temporarily--by the videotaped Rodney G. King beating and its repercussions. Cars that last month would have been pulled over by police on the slightest pretext so that the occupants could be questioned now are allowed to glide by. Sometimes officers are openly taunted, but for now they let it slide.

"I can't tell you how many times I've been flipped off in the past week . . . mostly by youngsters and gang-bangers," said Los Angeles Police Sgt. Dallas Gibson of the 77th Street Division. "I say, 'Fine, flip me off. I'm going to overlook it this time.'

"These are tough times for us," Gibson added. "It's a time for thick skin."

At 45th Street and Vermont Avenue last week, several men watched warily with arms folded from the front yard of an old wooden house as nine patrol cars swarmed around a nearby motel. It was clear that an arrest was about to be made.

"Watch how the cops treat those people. Just watch," one man muttered, nodding in the direction of the motel.

"They're like Ku Klux Klan," said another. "They ain't never gonna change."

A few minutes later, police officers led by Sgt. Gibson emerged from one of the motel rooms with a suspect in handcuffs. And to the onlookers' surprise, the cops and the suspected crook alike were wearing smiles.

The King case has exposed a longstanding undercurrent of tension between the Los Angeles Police Department and segments of the city it protects. In addition to some always-vocal community activists, people who once tolerated or even encouraged such heavy-handed enforcement tactics as battering rams and massive "Operation Hammer" sweeps are openly expressing their resentment over what they recall as personal experiences with aggressive police behavior.

Much of the uproar has centered on Chief Daryl F. Gates and whether he should be forced to step down, but more subtle evidence of fallout from the King case can be found on street corners, parking lots, housing projects and other places where the line between aggressive police work and excessive force is heavily trod.

Doshon Fuller, 16, told of being stopped Tuesday in his South-Central neighborhood by a plainclothes officer who wanted to know why the young man's finger was bleeding.

"I told him I cut it at school," Fuller said. "In a polite way, he asked if I was all right, and then asked me to put my hands on the car and searched me--then he said, 'Get along now.' "

Fuller marvelled at how "polite" the policeman had been and he, like others in the 58-square-mile community of 550,000 residents patrolled by the Police Department's South Bureau, believe the newfound courtesy of officers stems directly from the King case.

"I'm not surprised there is some cynicism," said Police Department spokesman Fred Nixon, but he added that "this intensified courtesy will not end next week."

At morning roll calls, South Bureau's police supervisors offer some additional advice.

"I'm telling my people: 'Don't get paranoid; be professional and try to restore our image out there,' " said Sgt. Lon Salzman of the Police Department's Southeast Station.

"Of course, some officers will go back to being hard-nosed. But others will realize they get better results relating to people in a kinder manner. At the same time, I'm worried some people in the community will try to take advantage of that kindness, which could make us revert to being unemotional instead of nice and sweet."

Some Police Department officials believe that the King case might be partially responsible for a reduction in arrests since the black motorist was clubbed and kicked March 3 in the San Fernando Valley community of Lake View Terrace.

Citywide, the department reported 6,445 arrests between March 1 and March 15, 1991, compared with 7,341 during the period a year ago--a decline of 12.21%. Police Department arrests in the San Fernando Valley have dropped 16%, authorities said. Charles Drescher, director of systems for the Police Department, maintained that beyond the King beating, other factors may have contributed to the drop in arrests, including a spate of rainy weather that can restrict criminal activity.

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