Before Rodney G. King, there was Eulia Love.
Love was a 39-year-old black woman who was shot to death by two Los Angeles police officers early in 1979 as she was about to throw a kitchen knife at them.
The Herald Examiner--then a decade away from its demise--quickly made her a Page 1 story. But The Times published only two brief stories in the first week and did not put her on Page 1 until more than three months later--and then only after Esquire magazine and the California Journal had embarrassed The Times by criticizing it for missing the story.
"We were roundly trashed . . . and they were right. We blew it," says David Rosenzweig, then a Times reporter and now an assistant managing editor.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 27, 1992 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 5 Metro Desk 2 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Police reporting--Times reporter David Freed, who was described in a story in Tuesday's Times as having left the police beat for The Times "a few months" before the Rodney G. King beating, actually left that assignment more than 18 months before the beating.
The Times "blew it" for a variety of reasons: Miscommunication. A reluctance to play catch-up on a story that the Herald Examiner quickly appropriated as its own. A lack of a strong black presence and any real competitive zeal in The Times newsroom. Perhaps most important, The Times had long suffered from what Noel Greenwood, then senior assistant metropolitan editor and now senior editor, called at the time a "weak, penny-ante operation" directing local news coverage.
The Times had been struggling for two years to reorganize and improve its local coverage, and the Love debacle spurred further reorganization. In the process, Rosenzweig says, it also made the Love case the latest watershed in Times coverage of the LAPD.
Rosenzweig was made city editor of the paper in late 1979 and one of his primary objectives was to break away from the paper's traditional "cops and robbers coverage."
"One of the first things I did--maybe the first thing," he says "was to pick a reporter to cover the Police Department as a political entity."
In a 1984 study, "Police Accountability and the Media," Jerome H. Skolnick, longtime police expert and law professor at UC Berkeley, praised the work of David Johnston, the reporter whom Rosenzweig chose for the assignment, and said that if the media did more such reporting on "policing as process and institution and less about disjointed and sensational events (like crime)," citizens would be better able to "hold police accountable."
But many LAPD officials saw such "process" reporting as a sign that the media was out to "get the LAPD."
Journalists deny this, but the media did repeatedly mischaracterize the circumstances surrounding Love's death. Story after story said that police had shot Love "in a dispute over a gas bill."
The police do not collect gas bills, though. Officers shot Love because she was about to throw an 11-inch knife at them after having assaulted a gas company serviceman with a shovel earlier in the day.
Not that her actions justify what the officers did; the Police Commission accused the officers of "serious errors in judgment." Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, though officially ruling that the shooting was "in policy," conceded: "Anyway you viewed it, it was a bad shooting."
Nevertheless, as recently as last year, stories on the case in the Daily News and Los Angeles magazine described the shooting as having occurred "in a dispute over her utility bill" or some variation of that theme.
In the aftermath of the Love shooting, police also complained that the media routinely ignored stories favorable to the department, published headlines that were sensationalized, inaccurate and misleading and did little to convey to the public the growing day-to-day problems--and dangers--that police encounter.
In an interview conducted--like all others for today's story--before the recent riots, Rosenzweig agreed with that latter criticism.
"If there's any one thing that concerns me about . . . media coverage," Rosenzweig said, it is that the media are "judged by how tough they are on the Police Department."
"I'm sure there's not a day that goes by that some cop isn't risking his or her life to save some kid or whatever, and I don't know that that's adequately reported," Rosenzweig said. Over time, that imbalance creates "a false image of the department."
Nevertheless, Rosenzweig said, he "wouldn't give up one single tough story that we've done."
In the early 1980s, there were several tough stories on the LAPD, in The Times and elsewhere.
In 1980, a Times series on "Watts: 15 Years After the Riot" included three stories dealing with the issue of police brutality and racism toward blacks. Seventeen months later, The Times published a lengthy investigation showing how ineffective the Los Angeles County district attorney's office was in prosecuting officers accused of using excessive force. Of the 355 police shootings the district attorney had investigated in the previous three years, the story said, "only one resulted in a prosecution. It was lost."
The Daily News and, especially, the Herald Examiner wrote about police use of force with some frequency at the time. In 1986, the Herald Examiner published the strongest pre-Rodney King examination of the issue, a three-part series that concluded: