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PERSPECTIVE ON THE KING CASE : 'Street Justice' Isn't the Cops' Idea : A cynical and frustrated public has been sending signals that police can do what the system won't. Is this what we want?

April 18, 1993|WILLIAM J. WENZEL | William J. Wenzel is a police commissioner with the Fairfield, Conn., Police Department and a practicing attorney in Bridgeport, Conn.

In the aftermath of the verdict in the Rodney G. King civil-rights case, America will have to come to grips with the inconsistent, confusing and ultimately self-destructive signals that society sends to local police.

From a purely legal perspective, the dominant factual issue in both of the trials of the four LAPD officers--the state's trial last spring and the federal trial now winding down--was whether they used excessive force to subdue and arrest King. In the courtroom, however, both the prosecution and the defense seemed keenly aware of a subliminal issue: the circumstances that would make a jury more or less tolerant of what appeared to be a vicious beating.

The prosecution presented King as a speeding motorist foolishly trying to evade arrest; not many people would agree that reckless drivers should be severely beaten. The defense presented King as an aggressive, dangerous, PCP-crazed felon; why should an arresting officer take any chances? Apart from their relevance to either side of the case, these disparate views go directly to the issue of when excessive force might be tolerated by society.

Among many police, jurists and observers of the criminal justice system, there is a belief that our society, increasingly cynical and frustrated with the system, looks to the police as a means of enforcing "street justice." The term applies to the notion that the righteous anger of a society wronged will find expression and some degree of satisfaction regardless of the outcome of any judicial proceeding. The means will occasionally take the form of excessive force, but far more often public satisfaction will be served simply by the demeaning process with which the system treats criminal defendants.

The vast majority of police know that expectations of "street justice" are ill-considered. These officers perform their jobs in a professional manner, and their ability to be fair, even in the face of provocation, would surprise many. The single most destructive force at work on that fiber of professionalism is the desire of the public, particularly victims of crime, to see the police accomplish single-handedly what the criminal justice system as a whole cannot. For men and women who choose a police career out of a desire to serve the public, the frustration of not being able to meet crime victims' expectations can be demoralizing. When they also perceive the impatience of society to punish criminals and a willingness not to ask too many questions, the stage has been set for officers to believe that brutality can be exercised in appropriate cases. To some degree, the so-called Rodney King trials were about whether a particular instance of brutality was appropriate.

One does not have to look very far to see substantial evidence that our society tolerates, or even respects, the image of the police officer who feels free to work outside the system. Often, victims of crime rapidly develop a new perspective on how much "due process" is due and what police behavior is appropriate. The theme of the "rogue cop" as avenging angel of justice is popular in movies, television and fiction. How far behind is reality?

In the world of make-believe, the targets of street justice are so clearly despicable and the frustrations of the officers so great that the decision to go outside the law is applauded. In real life, the frustrations can be every bit as great, but the appropriate targets are unclear and ever-changing. Perhaps the most significant difference between the two trials of the Los Angeles police officers was the attempt of the federal prosecutors to change the jurors' perception of King in a manner that would reduce his appearance as an appropriate target of police brutality.

For most police with whom I have spoken, the King affair has raised deep and troubling questions. Though none can officially condone excessive force at any time, most understand the emotional caldron that existed when the freeway chase of King ended on a quiet suburban street. They also understand how that emotion might boil over when a suspect violently resists arrest. What troubles officers is that somewhere in the 20 seconds of videotape shown repeatedly on television, the understandable fear, anger and adrenaline that flows from a high-speed chase gave way to a cold, almost systematic beating. You can debate exactly when that line was crossed, but you cannot watch that videotape and argue that it was not crossed. The troubling question is why it was crossed.

The easy answer is to attribute the conduct to racial bias or an aberrant group of officers. I am reluctant to accept either theory. I am left wondering how much those officers felt that our society as a whole would condone or approve brutal treatment for a man who had just put countless lives at risk and then balked when the officers demanded that he come into custody quietly.

America cannot continue to look to local police departments to solve the problems our society has with crime and punishment. The problems of hopelessly overcrowded courts and jails ensure that many of those apprehended for all but the most serious crimes will go free. Even the most serious crimes will be hard to prosecute successfully, and many who are found guilty will be discharged prematurely. These simply are not problems within the power of the police to solve. Don't ask them to do so.

America cannot tell its police that they are free to take shortcuts to justice when they deem them appropriate. Similarly, America must come to grips with its fantasy that the police can deliver simple, violent solutions to our complex criminal justice problems. In its closing statement, the prosecution asked the question: "Is this how you want the police to act?" Do we dare ask the question: Is this how we have asked our police to act?

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