A Los Angeles Police Department tribunal has recommended that a police helicopter observer be reprimanded for claiming he never saw the beating of Rodney G. King, despite the fact that his aircraft provided a spotlight to help officers on the ground arrest the motorist.
Officer Kenneth A. Phillippe, a 10-year Police Department veteran, was originally facing a suspension without pay for 15 days. But a police Board of Rights panel urged the lesser penalty of a written reprimand after hearing the case behind closed doors for several days at Parker Center.
Phillippe is only the second of two dozen LAPD officers at the scene of the King beating to go through the administrative discipline process. Late last year, Officer Timothy Blake, a bystander who like others did nothing to stop the beating, was cleared by the LAPD of any wrongdoing.
Capt. Alan B. Deal, who chaired the three-member panel, declined Wednesday to discuss the reasoning for recommending that Chief Willie L. Williams reprimand the 33-year-old Phillippe. The captain cited a court-imposed gag order on sealing evidence in the administrative hearings for officers present at the King beating.
But Detective Edward Camarillo, who defended Phillippe during the hearing, said he and Phillippe considered it a victory to get just a reprimand, particularly because of the politically charged atmosphere that has surrounded the King case.
"That's the bottom line in this kind of climate," he said.
Phillippe, in an interview with Internal Affairs Division investigators after the March, 1991, beating, said that he was busy observing the area around the Lake View Terrace intersection where King was arrested to make sure the officers were safe, and that he could not tell exactly what was happening to the motorist.
He said he only "glanced" for about two seconds at the officers surrounding King, describing the glance as "the time it takes to turn your head, look down and turn away."
He said that he saw six or eight people wearing dark clothing "standing in a loose circle" around King's vehicle, but that he could not see King on the ground.
The LAPD maintained that if Phillippe observed so little on the ground, then he was derelict in his duty as a helicopter observer. Camarillo disagreed.
"It's a misnomer that a person sees everything" from the air, he said. "When you look down from a higher elevation, there are so many obstacles on the ground. There are objects on the ground and (there is) more movement and it's difficult to see.
"And the observer's job is to watch for officer safety, and there is nothing he can really do to assist the officers on the ground," Camarillo said. "He can't suddenly land his helicopter on the ground and try to help out."