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King Beating Suspects to Use Ban of Chokehold as Defense

May 17, 1991|RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When four Los Angeles police officers stand trial next month for the beating of Rodney G. King, the defense will argue that officers have no choice but to use their batons to subdue combative suspects because the city abandoned the police chokehold nearly a decade ago.

The defendants will also point out that officials who now are condemning them in the King case--including Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner--are the very ones who had conceded that the loss of the chokehold would result in more baton beatings and greater injuries to the public.

"The policy-makers of this city have failed in their responsibility to protect the citizens and support the police," said Sgt. Stacey C. Koon, the highest ranking of the four indicted officers.

"They were all fully aware of the consequences of the changed use-of-force policy," he continued. "They knew citizens and police officers were being injured and they failed to do anything to stop it and prevent it."

He added, "The most appalling aspect is they approved it and are now recanting their action."

Koon's comments came Thursday in the form of an 11-page letter to The Times outlining the debate over the Police Commission's decision in 1982 to eliminate the chokehold as an acceptable technique for officers when a confrontation does not pose a threat to life. A public furor had arisen after a number of people died when the neck restraint was applied by Los Angeles police.

Ironically, one death occurred in April, 1982, in Lake View Terrace, the same area where the police officers stopped King on March 3 and were captured on an amateur videotape beating and kicking the black motorist.

The chokehold issue is expected to be part of a multipronged defense in which the officers will also maintain that they simply were following accepted police procedures, and that King resisted arrest before the photographer started filming.

However, the counterargument--voiced by an LAPD training supervisor and others Thursday--is that the officers who struck King acted outside department policy by delivering up to 56 baton blows, many while King lay unresisting on the ground.

While the chokehold issue was being debated by the Police Commission, Gates argued strenuously that if officers were denied use of the chokehold, more severe injuries to citizens would result.

In the federal courts, where one lawsuit over the chokehold went before the U.S. Supreme Court, then-City Atty. Reiner also warned that batons could cause serious injuries and deaths.

Reiner, who is prosecuting the officers in the King case, declined to be interviewed. Gates, in an interview with The Times two weeks after the King beating, reiterated his concerns that without the chokehold, his officers reach for their batons when their orders are not obeyed.

"I was really reluctant because the next step was the baton," he said. "I just cannot visualize our police officers jumping from verbalization immediately to the baton. I had a really hard time with that. A really hard time."

But Gates and others have argued that while officers may be turning more readily to the baton, that is no excuse for the number of blows that struck King.

"I am a firm believer that if I use the baton just once, that's all I need," said a training supervisor at the Los Angeles Police Academy, who asked not to be identified. "We use the minimum amount of force to overcome a suspect's force. Once that's accomplished, you don't need any more strikes. And it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that too much was used that night."

Joe Callahan, a use-of-force expert who testified to the Los Angeles County Grand Jury before the officers were indicted, said it was clear from the videotape that excessive force was used against King, and that he did not appear to be resisting arrest.

"There is no assaultive behavior that would justify a baton use and, in this case, a continued baton use," Callahan said.

In the wake of the King beating, the chief has ordered an internal LAPD review to evaluate the department's entire use-of-force policy and determine why there was "a breakdown" in police procedures when King was arrested.

"We want to find out what exactly that breakdown was, what caused it and if there is anything that we can do to prevent that from occurring again," said police spokesman Cmdr. Robert Gil.

"We're going to look at everything," Gil continued. "We want to make some calm, cool, decisions based on some good, sound studies."

The current department guidelines state: "The baton shall not be used to gain compliance to verbal commands absent combative or aggressive actions by the suspect."

In the videotape, King cannot be seen fighting with the officers. But the defense attorneys for the indicted officers contend that King was unresponsive and combative when he first stepped out of his vehicle, making the use of batons appropriate.

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