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THE TIMES POLL : Mood Calm in Most of L.A. as Trial Nears End


As verdicts in the Rodney G. King civil rights trial draw near, residents throughout most of Los Angeles describe their neighborhoods as calm and say they have done nothing to protect themselves in the event of renewed violence, a Los Angeles Times Poll has found.

Although most residents worry that the verdicts will probably trigger another round of rioting, the majority do not believe that violence is inevitable and maintain confidence that police and city officials can quell another major outburst.

In fact, fully half of those questioned say they fear there is a greater danger that law enforcement officials will overreact and incite a new wave of violence.

"I think there is more likely to be an overreaction to compensate for the lack of reaction the last time," said Beth Comstock, 33, of Hancock Park. "I think the police force has something to prove and this time they are operating with foreknowledge."

Fifty-eight percent of residents of all ethnic backgrounds described their mood as calm, a sentiment shared among Latinos, Anglos and African-Americans, from the Eastside to the Westside and from the San Fernando Valley to the harbor. The poll found no evidence that outlying areas of the city were more fearful of violence than inner-city neighborhoods.

Significantly, although more residents living in areas unaffected by last spring's unrest reported their neighborhoods as being calm, that was not the case in areas hardest hit by the violence. In those places, 47% of respondents reported their mood as tense, while 44% said emotions were running calm.

If there is an eruption of violence, 55% of Los Angeles city residents believe it will be less severe than last year's sweeping disorder. Twenty-two percent believe that it will be worse.

The poll, conducted from Wednesday through Friday, provides cause for hope and pessimism as the city prepares for verdicts in the racially charged trial of four Los Angeles police officers accused of violating Rodney G. King's civil rights.

The responses reveal a public with mixed emotions on many issues. Although 50% of Angelenos fear that police could overreact once the verdicts are announced, a bare majority also say they would favor deploying the National Guard on the streets before the verdicts and 7 out of 10 approve of allowing the police broad authority to make arrests during curfews.

Majorities of African-Americans (80%), Anglos (52%) and Latinos (65%) are inclined to believe that the police officers are guilty of the charges against them. Anglos are divided on whether the officers must be convicted for justice to be done. By contrast, 75% of African-Americans and 59% of Latinos say a just outcome requires that the officers be found guilty.

The question of whether renewed violence is justified if the officers are not convicted also produced divisions. Majorities of Anglos (79%), African-Americans (58%) and Latinos (53%) agreed that violence would be totally unjustified no matter what the verdicts. But sizable minorities of Latinos (40%) and African-Americans (32%) said they would consider violence partially or totally justified. Nineteen percent of Anglos thought renewed violence would be justified. The question provoked heated emotions.

"Blacks and other ethnic groups have been discriminated against by the police--whether they want to admit to it or not--and have a legitimate beef," said poll respondent Elizabeth Barash, 66, a retired Los Angeles Community College employee from Van Nuys. "I hope that nothing happens, but if there is violence I will understand it. Whether it's right or wrong is besides the point."

But others disagreed.

Violence "is totally unjustified, it's counterproductive and it's not going to change the verdict," said Harriet Seay, a 57 year-old homemaker from South-Central Los Angeles. "When you think in terms of the loss of jobs and possibly lives . . . it only leads to the devastation of the community."

Conducted by Times Poll Director John Brennan, the survey interviewed 1,136 Los Angeles residents. It has a margin of error of 3 percentage points in either direction.

Despite a media blitz in recent weeks focused on the mood of the city and preparations for the possibility of renewed violence, 52% of residents agreed that the news media are simply doing their job by reporting the situation in the city rather than encouraging disorder. However, a majority of residents (59%) approved of barring news media helicopters from flying over certain parts of the city if police find that the flights interfere with law enforcement.

Some residents, though, said the news coverage should not be limited in any way.

"My feeling is the police don't want the helicopters flying over because they don't want to be ridiculed anymore," said San Pedro resident Debra Carmona, 31. "If the media had not been out there reporting last time, a lot of us would have been stranded away from home."

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