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The King-Case Verdicts Angered Me: Those Truly Responsible Got Off : PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE

April 25, 1993|GREG MEYER | Greg Meyer is a Los Angeles Police Department sergeant. Off duty, he has researched less-injurious police tactics and lectures on concepts surrounding the use of non-lethal weapons

The controversy set off by the beating of Rodney G. King was fed by the perception that the Los Angeles Police Department was unrespon sive to civilian control. The truth is, the LAPD leadership caved in to civilian overseers on use-of-force issues a decade ago. The King fiasco was thus a tragedy waiting to happen. I'm only surprised it took so long.

Initially, the verdicts in the King civil-rights trial made me angry, because no one had pointed out that responsibility for the brutal beating could be traced to previous generations of LAPD leaders, police commissioners, City Council members and the mayor. During the 1980s, bones and lives of both civilians and police officers were shattered because the chokehold was banned as a tactic and no adequate alternative replaced it.

Still, the federal jury sent a message to law enforcement: "You can't operate this way." The jury was not interested in controversies about chokeholds, swarm techniques or a police department with schizophrenic use-of-force policies.

The Simi Valley jury dealt with the facts of the case. The federal jury used its powers to look beyond the facts and arrive at an ultimate truth: Law enforcement simply must do better than what was seen on the King videotape.

The King incident was the inevitable product of a bureaucracy that inserted page after page of instructions on the need for simple decency into its policy manual, but which, in practice, exhibited little organized sense of humanity toward the public or even its own employees.

Things may be getting better, however. Chief Willie L. Williams is trying to break down longstanding hostilities inside and outside of the LAPD. He is encouraging the department to treat its employees and the community with decency and respect. A recent videotape underscores his point: He really extended his hand to the community and to his employees.

Many agencies are groping for better alternatives than nightsticks and karate kicks. Some are even defying the traditional tug of bureaucratic paralysis, adopting appropriate policies to go along with innovative tactics and equipment.

This is good news. Better alternatives and policies will mean fewer and less severe injuries for both suspects and officers. Fewer taxpayer dollars will be paid out in liability actions. Law enforcement should enjoy an improved image.

The bad news is that the world is imperfect, and no weapon or tactic works on every resisting suspect, every time. Occasionally, there will be a nasty incident that strains relations between the public and the police.

But non-lethal weapons must be employed aggressively and early in potentially violent confrontations. Since there is little public understanding of police restraint tactics, it will be interesting to see how the public reacts to the use of these less-injurious devices. Some alternatives to the baton cause suspects to cough, wheeze and otherwise look disgusting on television. But officers in the field have to prevent a situation from escalating beyond their control--and must be given the means to do so.

We may wish that a non-lethal weapon like the phaser used in the old TV show "Star Trek" could be developed. In the meantime, the public may not be able to recognize that these non-lethal devices are causing less harm than would have otherwise been inflicted. The reality of enforcing the law will not always look tidy on the 6 o'clock news.

The city's leadership must also face up to this reality. Previous Americans demanded at least some sense of accountability from their leadership. Now, leaders are content to let responsibility roll downhill. If the council and new mayor demand improved tactics from the LAPD, they must also be supportive of their use.

The police must act in good faith to minimize the number of adverse incidents. But we are only part of the equation. The public must become less tolerant of lawbreakers who resist arrest.

The biggest change in direction must be in understanding. That requires examining not only what happened to King, but how it came to happen. Once there's that understanding, we can move on.

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