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Police Story : Personal Perspective : 'I Was Stunned' by the Frequency and Bravado of Scurrilous Comments

July 14, 1991|John Brooks Slaughter | John Brooks Slaughter, a member of the Christopher Commission, is president of Occidental College.

Nothing I had heard on the radio the day after the Rodney G. King beating had prepared me for what I saw and felt when I viewed George Holliday's cam era work sometime later. What I experienced when I first saw the videotape was a combined feeling of horror and grief, followed by a protracted period of a sense of hopelessness from witnessing the ugliness and brutality that was projected on our television screen.

Although some time had passed before I received the phone call from Mayor Tom Bradley asking me to serve on the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department--the Christopher Commission--that feeling of hopelessness had not abated. Therefore, my immediate reaction to his call for assistance was relief, based on the realization that I was being offered an opportunity to make a contribution. I could do something more than curse the circumstances that would allow a person to be brutalized by a ring of individuals whose avowed responsibility is "to protect and to serve."

Serving on the commission was equivalent to taking a crash postgraduate course in local government. The range of issues we explored and the collection of experts we were privileged to meet and learn from would have justified paying a high tuition fee just for the right to participate.

Without exception, it was a joy to work and exchange views with each of my colleagues on the commission. Candor, humor, respect for one another's opinions and an esteem for the gravity of our mission were shared values. The same can be said for the superb staff of attorneys and other professionals who worked countless hours to provide us with the information that we needed to conduct our deliberations and make our judgments.

And there are not enough words at my disposal to adequately express the regard I and my colleagues felt for our chairman, Warren Christopher. As fellow commissioner Mickey Kantor put it, "Chris is one of those rare people who, even after you have spent three months working with him, makes you feel like you want even more time to spend with him."

Immediately after the press conference last Tuesday, I was asked by a reporter whether there was anything that came as a surprise to me throughout the 100-day process. I am not sure what my reply was at that time, but if I were to answer that today, I would say that I was stunned by the frequency and the bravado with which far too many LAPD officers used the in-car Mobile Digital Terminal system to communicate their scurrilous racial, ethnic and sexual sentiments.

These were not casual inadvertencies that can often be discounted because of the heat of the moment. These were conscious statements that were typed on a keypad with little, if any, concern for the possibility that they would ever be disclosed or judged.

I was also shocked by the testimony of an African-American police officer who confessed that he had apprehensions about driving home from duty, late at night, for fear that he would be harassed by fellow officers who needed no other reason to stop him than that he was a black man driving through their district. His account made even more poignant the stories of law-abiding residents who expressed that, paradoxically, they felt safer among the criminal elements in their communities than they did in the presence of many of the police officers who were there to shield them against crime.

I became particularly concerned when our examination of the Police Commission revealed that this was a body with limited powers and resources to carry out its essential functions. Civilian control of a police department is imperative, countless experts on policing informed us. But the realization that the King incident, were it not for the Holliday videotape, was unlikely ever to have been brought to the attention of the Police Commission by the LAPD was reason enough for me to conclude that a complete revamping of the governance of the department was necessary.

On July 3, after reviewing the report's proposed chapter on excessive force, I wrote a note to myself: "This chapter clearly shows that excessive force is a problem in the LAPD, that it has existed for a long period of time, that it has been brought to the attention of the LAPD leadership on innumerable occasions, that many officers use excessive force with impunity, that accountability is nonexistent and that curbing excessive force will be difficult and will require major changes from top to bottom in the department.

"These realities are undergirded by evidence that points to the fact that not only are most cases not investigated and, if they are, few are sustained, but that many of those officers who have compiled records of large numbers of excessive-force charges are rewarded by promotions or better assignments. This leads me to the belief that the changes necessary are not going to occur by the extant leadership either in the Police Commission or in the top tier of the LAPD."

At the bottom of the page, I added, perhaps as encouragement to myself, "Now is the time for boldness and action, not vacillation."

All of us on the commission agree with Chief Daryl F. Gates that the vast majority of Los Angeles police officers are dedicated women and men who do an exceptional job in what is clearly one of the most difficult, demanding and dangerous professions in our society. We expressed our concurrence with that view at the beginning of our report.

But it is not too much to expect that same level of dedication and high standard of performance from not just most but all of our police officers. Those of us who served on the commission did so because we believe the people of Los Angeles deserve nothing less from their police department.

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