The Los Angeles Police Department agreed Tuesday to discontinue use of a controversial martial arts weapon called nunchakus while arresting anti-abortion protesters.
In reaching the settlement with six members of Operation Rescue, the Police Department made no promises that it would not use the device against others who were not part of the federal court litigation. But a police spokesman said that the device has not been used against other groups and that there are no immediate plans to use it.
The tentative settlement was announced three days into the trial in which Operation Rescue members asked U.S. District Judge A. Wallace Tashima to prohibit the Police Department from using nunchakus.
Deputy City Atty. Jack Brown, who represented the department, said the furor generated by the March 3 beating of motorist Rodney G. King played a role in the decision to settle the case.
"I think the general political climate and the public perception of excessive force being used in the Rodney King matter created an atmosphere for people to consider and reconsider the use of this device," Brown said. "The department is concerned about the public perception of their using a tool some people feel is a tool of excessive force."
By settling before the trial's conclusion, the Los Angeles Police Department averted the possibility of an unfavorable ruling that could have stripped the department of discretionary use of the device, which was first used by Los Angeles police in June, 1989, during an Operation Rescue blockade of a clinic that performed abortions.
Brown said he is confident that the City Council will approve the deal, which will be finalized before the judge.
Police Department officials have said they felt compelled to use nunchakus during the Operation Rescue protests because restraining techniques normally used against civil disobedience demonstrators had failed. They said, for example, that demonstrators had coated their arms with petroleum jelly to prevent officers from getting a firm grip--a contention disputed by the plaintiff's lawyer, Michael D. Imfeld.
Nunchakus consist of two 12-inch lengths of hard plastic connected by four inches of nylon cord that officers clamp tightly around the limbs of demonstrators to force them to move.
The Operation Rescue lawsuit alleged that officers selectively "tortured" up to 500 protesters at demonstrations in 1989 and 1990 as the activists attempted to block the doors of clinics in Los Angeles.
In all, more than 30 people filed medical claims against the city for injuries allegedly suffered during arrests. Three of the protesters testified that they suffered nerve damage and broken limbs.
Anti-abortion activists applauded Tuesday's settlement.
"We are grateful that we will now be able to protect the life of the unborn without harming our own lives," said Sue Odom, a field administrator for Operation Rescue. "Los Angeles was the only police force nationally to take a vigilante attitude towards us."
At a Tuesday news conference, Operation Rescue supporters released a portion of a 1989 declaration that Police Capt. Patrick McKinley wrote in a motion urging Judge Tashima not to temporarily ban use of the martial arts device. Operation Rescue called his statements "horrifying."
"Pain for many of the demonstrators is a catharsis for past failures to take action against abortion," McKinley said. "Therefore, they have an unusual capacity to withstand pain. Some appear as a young child welcoming punishment for past transgressions. With this unique ability to withstand pain comes possibility of injury since a great degree of pain is required to induce compliance by arrest."
Newly appointed Police Commissioner Michael Yamaki said he, too, was pleased with the settlement. "If we can accomplish our ends in law enforcement with less restrictive measures, that's good for citizens and the police."
The accord, moreover, was applauded by American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Carol Sobel, who frequently has battled with Operation Rescue over its tactics in attempting to prevent women from entering clinics that perform abortions.
"We have always opposed the use of the nunchakus against Operation Rescue," Sobel said. "It inflicted a lot of pain that seemed disproportionate to the crime committed. I assume the city will not use it against other demonstrators."
Although police spokesman Cmdr. Robert Gill would not preclude that possibility, he noted that "we don't have an investment in the nunchaku. It's not our position (that) it's the only tactic we have to police this kind of demonstration.
"We handled demonstrations before without it. We'll handle others in the future. We plan to abide by the settlement."
The tentative settlement was announced after the plaintiffs had concluded their case, which included testimony from James J. Fyfe, a former New York City police officer who is a professor of public administration at American University in Washington, D.C.