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Scrutiny in Man's Death Reflects New View of Police : Arrests: Pasadena barber died in custody while hogtied. Probe reflects new skepticism spurred by King beating.


The angry voices filling the New Revelation Baptist Church in Pasadena had a familiar ring.

The crowd of residents from northwest Pasadena demanded: How could a man die in police custody after a routine stop?

Despite explanations from police officials, the residents left the meeting bitter and frustrated that they still had no answer as to why Michael James Bryant died after he was hogtied by Los Angeles police and placed in the back of squad car.

In the end, it all seemed to boil down to their word against that of the police--a situation that has always seemed to favor the police.

But this time their voices were not alone.

Two years after the beating of Rodney G. King in suburban Lake View Terrace and a year after riots tore through Los Angeles, the case of Michael James Bryant, a 37-year-old Pasadena barber, stands as a mirror to a powerful shift in perceptions that has placed the police under intense scrutiny and transformed their relationship with the public.

Soon after the New Revelation meeting, the Pasadena City Council demanded--and got--a federal inquiry into Bryant's death on March 9. The head of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights visited to calm an outraged city. The FBI launched an investigation.

Then, as the world press assembled in Los Angeles for the verdicts in the federal King civil rights case, the Bryant incident was reported on NBC.

"There was the mayor on national television!" said Cmdr. Donn L. Burwell, head of the Pasadena Police Department's investigative division. "No incident has ever reached the level of national news."

The Bryant case reflects the suspicion in the wake of the King beating that surrounds police accounts of the incidents.

"Policing will never be the same," said San Marino Police Chief Frank Wills, whose department was involved in the Bryant incident. "The Rodney King incident is to police what Watergate was to politics."

With no videotape of the chase and arrest, the precise facts of the Bryant case remain elusive.

One of the few certainties is that Bryant was hogtied and placed face down in the back of a squad car, in violation of a Los Angeles police policy that was enacted in October after another man was asphyxiated in a similar situation.

But of the three police departments involved in arresting Bryant on the night of March 8, only the LAPD had a policy against placing hogtied suspects on their abdomens. In addition, Bryant was placed in a San Marino squad car, further confusing the issue of who was responsible for his safety.

If the police account of the incident is accurate, there were no other violations of police policy. But a central issue in the case is the credibility of the police account, which is contradicted in part by some civilian witnesses. Those witnesses, in turn, often contradict each other.

"It's a shame that you need a video camera to even come close to identifying the truth," said Pasadena City Councilman Chris Holden.


In its rough outline, the incident that led to Bryant's death seemed like a haunting echo from the past.

The suspect in this case was an imposing black man, 6 feet, 1 inch tall, weighing 320 pounds and clearly agitated, possibly high on drugs. He led a flashing caravan of squad cars through four cities. When finally caught, he was struck with batons, shocked with a Taser and hogtied by police officers.

According to police, the incident began at 11:10 p.m on March 8 at an empty gas station parking lot in San Marino, when Bryant excitedly flagged down a San Marino officer who was driving by, police said.

Bryant told the officer that his nephew had been kidnaped and was at San Marino's Lacy Park--an assertion that still puzzles Bryant's family because his nephew was not missing that night.

Police said Bryant pleaded with the officer to help find his nephew. He kept repeating that he needed to get to the park.

San Marino Officer Mark Fried--a drug-use expert with the department--recognized that Bryant was intoxicated.

He offered to drive Bryant to search for his nephew. When Fried reached to remove the keys from Bryant's car, Bryant sped out of the gas station, clipping the officer on the knee. The chase began.

What had begun as a simple stop to aid a citizen was escalating.

Dispatchers, unaware of the details of the situation at the gas station, broadcast a call for assistance on a "245," police code for assault with a deadly weapon--in this case, the car.

Bryant's Chevrolet Nova led the San Marino police on a zigzagging chase across town and into Pasadena, although he never exceeded 45 m.p.h. on city streets.

By the time Bryant entered the Pasadena Freeway at the south end of Arroyo Parkway in Pasadena, there were three San Marino police cars and four Pasadena cars in pursuit, plus a Pasadena police helicopter.

He got off the freeway at Avenue 60 in Highland Park--within LAPD jurisdiction--and cruised the streets before turning onto Avenue 58, a cul-de-sac that ends at the top of a hill.

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