It’s Not Just a Few Rotten Apples : The beating of Rodney King reignites Los Angeles’ debate on police conduct. How high does responsibility go?

<i> Jerome H. Skolnick is a professor of law at Boalt Hall, UC Berkeley, and author of "Justice Without Trial: Law Enforcement in Democratic Society."</i>

Ihave been riding with American and European police for more than 30 years. During that time, I have experienced about a half-dozen high-speed chases. Young, hotshot cops love these chases, partly because patrol policing, like military combat, is mostly boring. The high-speed chase offers an interlude of excitement--even terror.

More than excitement, the high-speed chase dramatizes a crucial role of policing--capturing dangerous and daring criminals. Anyone who drives a car at more than 100 m.p.h. to elude police is, by definition, dangerous and daring. Its driver is often a felon who either has a cache of drugs in the car or who has committed a serious crime. When captured, he is rarely treated with kid gloves. He may be pushed, shoved, shouted at, tightly cuffed.

Taking all this into account, the videotape of two or three Los Angeles police officers beating and kicking a suspect in a high-speed chase is “shocking and outrageous,” to use Mayor Tom Bradley’s words. The suspect, Rodney Glen King, was subdued and no longer dangerous. Then the officers pummeled him.


Was this beating an isolated act? Was it, as Chief Daryl Gates claimed, an “aberration”? Or was it a part of a larger pattern?

The beating could have been an isolated incident, but that seems unlikely. Consider the evidence of the videotape. Two officers are seen beating the downed suspect with their nightsticks. A third joins in to kick the suspect. The beating goes for roughly two minutes. At least eight officers witness the pummeling. Perhaps one steps in to stop it. The others let it proceed. They are, in effect, accessories.

The LAPD may try to label these officers “bad apples.” But my studies indicate that, like police corruption, brutality is more likely attributable to a “rotten barrel” than to “bad apples.”

Street incidents generate and sustain the norms that police live by. Cops who brutally beat prisoners have to have learned from their colleagues that this is appropriate--or at least not inappropriate--behavior.

This sort of conduct has other implications. Part of the literature on the world of policing deals with the “Blue Code of Silence”--cops are not supposed to tell outsiders or investigators the truth about police corruption or brutality. Because so many other officers stood by and watched the beating of King, those who participated must have believed that they could count on their colleagues to lie in case of an investigation.

This time, the police witnesses, knowing about the videotape, will probably not compound their offense by lying about what really happened. But can we believe that they would have told the truth without the tape?

Was this a racist incident? That the driver was a black man clearly did not deter the officers from beating him; it may have contributed to its severity. Some of Gates’ famous remarks--that African-Americans are more susceptible to chokeholds, for example--suggest an endemic strain of racism in the LAPD.

We won’t know how much racism was involved. But I believe that a propensity toward brutality and racism are strongly related. Racist police are more likely to be brutal, and brutal police more likely to be racist.