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When Uniform Justice Links King Verdicts, Tailhook

April 25, 1993|DANA PARSONS

Controlling the action.

Those are the words that stuck most in my mind after the second Rodney King verdict, because they seemed the most incredible of any spoken at either of the two trials. Yet, that was the phrase that Sgt. Stacey Koon used to justify the police beating of King. Most incredibly of all, the Simi Valley jurors bought it.

So, despite the fateful video that showed King at times prostrate on the ground and other times on all fours taking blow after blow, Koon persuaded large numbers of people in and out of court that King was "controlling the action" and, therefore, responsible for what happened to him.

Those three words lend themselves to far more than just the King affair.

Case in point: The Pentagon's Tailhook investigation is starting to take on its own Rodney King dimensions. The Defense Department just finished a seven-month investigation of the infamous 1991 Las Vegas convention and has accused about 140 Navy and Marine Corps officers of sexual assaults or other misconduct. The report said the incident resulted from a "serious breakdown of leadership."

If George Holliday's video of the King arrest would have rated an "R" for violence, a video of the Tailhook affair would be at least a "hard R" for sex and violence and maybe an "X." The Pentagon's report makes it sound as if the aviators at the convention were all cum laude graduates of the Spur Posse.

Just as some people dismissed the King beating as the price of doing business if you're a fleeing felon, so will some dismiss the Tailhook charges as the price women paid for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The apologists will say many of the women knew what was going on in the hotel where the assaults occurred and were "looking for a good time."

In that sense, the women were "controlling the action" and, well, boys will be boys.

One sure test of potential criminality is the existence of cover-up. You remember the King arrest reports--nothing to suggest the thumping he took. No cop came forward.

With Tailhook, the equivalent of the Holliday video was Lt. Paula Coughlin, one of the women victimized and the original whistle-blower. The results of the Navy's original investigation: two primary suspects and what the Pentagon now calls a virtual conspiracy to close ranks about the incident.

The Pentagon report issued the other day: 83 women assaulted.

The aviators would have gotten away with it, and the LAPD officers would have gotten away with it, because the odds were heavily stacked in their favor.

Reduced to simplest terms, the incidents represent nothing more than the powerful versus the powerless. Power stems from wearing the uniform. If those in uniform get out of line, they know the only witnesses will be their buddies, and buddies don't squeal. It's drilled into them at boot camp and the police academy.

I can't read minds. I don't know if the cops, in their heart of hearts, knew they were lawbreakers when they worked King over. I don't know if the Tailhook revelers knew they were criminally assaulting the women.

But I'm pretty sure that both the LAPD cops on the King arrest and the Tailhook party-goers thought they could get away with murder. It is no small point to note that the investigation said that the 1991 Tailhook convention may have been "tame" by previous years' standards.

Does that mean that the aviators knew their superiors had done the same things in years past? Does that suggest they knew they could act "under color of authority" with virtual impunity, knowing that any complaints from powerless victims would go nowhere? Did Koon and his subordinates think there was precedent for what they were doing?

The answer to those questions is self-evident. It's part of the delusion that can enter the minds of an embattled or poorly led group of people.

The answer lies in the difference between controlling a fleeing felon and mugging him. It's the difference between letting off some steam in Vegas and assaulting people.

Not surprisingly, former L.A. Police Chief Daryl Gates made one of the more telling comments after the second King verdict. Watching some blacks cheering the guilty verdicts, Gates said disgustedly that he couldn't understand the jubilation. Neither would Gates understand, I suppose, why women will cheer if and when punishment is meted out over the Tailhook report.

It all depends, chief, on whose ox is getting gored.

Or, here's a fresher cliche: It all depends on who's controlling the action.

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.

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