A Question of Respect : Judgment Against Gates Makes Statement for Minority Rights

<i> Henry W. McGee Jr. is a professor at the UCLA School of Law and a former prosecutor in Chicago. </i>

In October a U.S. District Court jury awarded Jessie Larez and his family $90,503 in damages, most of which was punitive, against Los Angeles police officers for a June, 1986, raid in which the Larez house was left in shambles and family members were injured.

A little more than a month later the same jury ordered Police Chief Daryl F. Gates to pay more than $170,000 to the family--apparently the first time in which a major city police chief was held individually liable for a raid by his officers. Though most jurors declined to speak to the press afterward, one did say before leaving the courthouse, “I think they got the message.”

The “message” is one that minority communities have been sending to police departments in urban America since the Watts rebellion--that minority communities resent being both under- and overpoliced. Disproportionately victims of crime, minority citizens have long complained of a lack of police when they need them. They have consistently protested the uneven and unequal allocation of law-enforcement resources to more affluent and “more important” areas of the nation’s cities.

But though minority citizens want police assigned to their communities to keep the peace, they expect officers to show respect for citizens. In a press conference outside the courtroom two days before his verdict came down, Gates had whined about the jury punishing the police with a $90,000 verdict when the police were “doing something” about gang killings. He said that Larez was “probably lucky that all he had broken (was his nose).” Yet the verdict was no more than an unequivocal rejection of behavior that violates the right to decent treatment for even those suspected of a crime. Police must distinguish between necessary toughness and unwarranted and unconscionable brutality.


Evidence in the case indicated that, early one morning, police entered the Larez home in search of a gun purportedly used in a murder and allegedly owned by Larez’s son, Edward. In the ensuing tumult, Larez’s daughter was yanked to the floor by her hair and numerous household items were smashed. Police alleged that Larez rushed them as they entered through the front door of the house--after they had broken windows in the rear as a diversionary tactic. The 55-year-old Larez was said to have been forced to the floor kicking and screaming after he had struck one officer in the chest. Though the case is still to be reviewed by appellate courts, and possibly by the U.S. Supreme Court, the police conduct and Gates’ arrogant, defiant and intimidating response is not what minority communities mean by effective law enforcement.

Indeed, no American citizen can view with equanimity the early-morning invasion of a home and the subsequent ransacking of the house and injuries inflicted on innocent family members. No American citizen can hear without alarm a snarling police chief who disparages injuries that his officers inflict on the citizens whom he is sworn to protect. And no American citizen can find tolerable the insinuation that the family needed cleaning up before they testified in court (Gates complained that the jurors had been unfairly influenced by “how cleaned up and beautiful” the Larez family appeared in court).

While Gates might have been equally insensitive had the family been Anglo, the fact remains that as a high-ranking governmental official he is charged with the responsibility of knowing that in describing a Latino family, any implication that it needs cleaning up in order to come to court carries special weight in a racist social order. Gates not only has the responsibility of enforcing the law, he also has a stake in diminishing racial tensions, not exacerbating them.

Though the citizens of Los Angeles, for the time being, seem condemned to suffer the sometimes insufferable chief of police, it is reassuring to know that the nation provides a remedy for citizens whose basic human rights are sacrificed in the name of law enforcement. Appropriately, Gates was sued under federal legislation passed after the Civil War to “secure life, liberty, and property, and the enforcement of law in all parts of the United States.” The legislation was prompted by a failure of local governments to curb the Ku Klux Klan reign of terror against recently freed slaves in the South.

In the landmark case of Monroe vs. Pape, the Supreme Court resurrected the long-dormant statute to uphold verdicts against 13 Chicago police officers who compelled a black family to stand naked in the living room while they ransacked their home, even ripping apart bed mattresses. Although police alleged that the family’s father was a murder suspect, he was eventually released without being charged. While in custody, he was never taken before a magistrate or permitted to call his family or his lawyer.

The Larez verdict was premised not only on Monroe but also on the more recent Monell vs. Department of Social Services (of New York City), a 1978 case that decided that a city could be held legally responsible when its employees, acting according to custom or under color of some official policy, violated a citizen’s constitutional rights. Monell holds that liability may be imposed in a broad set of circumstances when “action pursuant to official municipal policy of some nature caused a constitutional tort.”

In the Larez case, Gates was further alleged as being personally liable because he tolerated police conduct like that perpetrated against the family. It was further charged that he failed to prohibit or to caution against the excessive use of force. It was argued that Gates was effectually responsible for the excessive use of force during the raid because he implemented a citizens’ complaint system that makes it practically impossible for complainants to have officers disciplined. Under the system now in place, police officials reviewing charges of misconduct nearly always believe the officer and reject the citizen charges. An officer’s denial in the complaint procedure is given far greater weight than it would be in any other context, and nearly always results in exoneration. Such a system that is unresponsive to the complaints of citizens can only encourage the police to act without restraint, in plain disregard of the civil rights of citizens. The callous and indifferent remarks by Gates could only have been interpreted by the jury as a sign that the chief ratified and encouraged a policy at variance with the U.S. Constitution andits command that all citizens, without respect to race or creed, be granted both due process and equal protection of the laws. Far from biting law enforcement’s protective hand, the message from the jury was a vote of confidence in a system of constitutional government, which applies even as police struggle in the vexing war on gangs.