Police in Los Angeles may well be more brutal than those in other large U.S. cities, but we may never know because they are far less subject to control. The most significant aspect of the disgraceful beating of Rodney G. King is its subtle revelation of the routine silence about law-enforcement abuses in our community.
In virtually all U.S. jurisdictions, people presumed by the police to be criminal offenders are widely treated with verbal disrespect and are often subject to physical mistreatment. The public rarely learns about the problem, because the victims usually have much more to fear from the police than a beating. As in the King case, the victim's first thought as the police approach is not about brutal cops but about probation status or about vulnerability on the charges that the police may bring. Many street criminals would welcome a beating that would compromise the police's ability to send them back to prison. Bear in mind that the King incident came to light not because he or his passengers approached the media, but because, by very odd chance, a bystander had on hand a new video camera that he was eager to try out.
What is more distinctive about Los Angeles is an institutional weakness in the professional constituencies of the police. Other communities have at least three supports for oversight, all of which are lacking here.
First, legal academics, bar associations and judges in Southern California are stunning in their silence. Lawyers in this part of the country have broken with a national, century-old tradition in which civic-minded groups of lawyers periodically document and denounce such local problems as political corruption and law-enforcement abuses, risking pomposity and self-righteousness in the name of a selfless commitment to professional ideals.
Second, our local prosecutors are routinely silent. Having suffered his own extraordinary series of fiascoes, L.A. County's prosecutor has hardly been in a position to undertake a vigorous grand-jury or undercover investigation of police brutality. Our expectation of competence has not been shattered at the federal level, but then, Los Angeles seems to have no expectations about its federal prosecutor other than that he or she will periodically surprise us with a drug case so large that it ironically reveals the hopelessly massive size of illegal drug markets.
We could expect more. Several years ago, when conducting observation research within the U.S. Attorney's office in Brooklyn, I was impressed by the leadership's sense of responsibility repeatedly to initiate federal civil-rights criminal cases, even when conviction seemed quite chancy, out of an awareness of the importance of avoiding the appearance of Establishment complicity in official racial oppression--and these prosecutors were conservative Republican appointees.
Third, and somewhat paradoxically, the weakness of local political organizations tempts law-enforcement leaders to pursue their own images in media reflections, undermining their agencies' professionalism. Where strong political organizations control the routes to higher office, they also block the narcissistic antics to which we have become accustomed. When L.A.'s top cop and prosecutor insist that we examine their personalities by issuing histrionic, divisive statements and incompetently managing cases, there is no political organization to be embarrassed.
The embarrassment is left for the community as a whole to suffer. In other communities, a "bad apple" resolution, in which the miscreants are prosecuted as deviant cases, might work. In Los Angeles, the only possibility for effectively expressing indignation about such thuggery of our police as that in the King case, indeed the only way for us to avoid complicity in it, is for the public to insist that the chief resign.
VIDEOTAPED BEATING: Other commentary on the beating of Rodney G. King by LAPD officers on Op-Ed, Page 5.