The clubbing and use of a Taser stun gun on a man lying helpless on the ground by Los Angeles police officers was promptly characterized by Chief Daryl F. Gates as an aberration.
But this atrocity is unique only in that it was captured on videotape. It is an aberration only in the sense that at least three of the 12 officers face criminal prosecution.
The truth is that any person who tries to evade officers is more likely than not to be beaten, shot or mauled by police dogs. Typically, he will then have to defend himself against charges of assaulting an officer, commonly referred to as "cover charges," based on a falsified police report.
The chief's claim that this kind of conduct is unusual is the height of hypocrisy. It is well-known in law-enforcement circles that the end of a chase is one of the occasions when officers have a propensity to use excessive force, although in Los Angeles County it is routine behavior, whether or not there has been a pursuit.
Any conscientious police administrator knows from numerous sources that unnecessary police violence is commonplace and increasing.
City Council members approve settlements and pay judgments arising out of lawsuits over police beatings, but they rarely raise a whimper about the huge expenditures of taxpayer money that could have been avoided if they had performed their oversight duties properly.
Written claims required in the filing of a lawsuit against a public employee are also available, as are citizen complaints against police officers. But there is little or no effort to use these resources to monitor police performance.
Karol Heppe, executive director of the Police Misconduct Lawyer Referral Service, reports a dramatic increase in complaints against law-enforcement officers that the organization received in 1990. Of 2,654 received last year, 616 were complaints against Los Angeles police officers, including eight assigned to the Foothill Division, where King's alleged attackers were stationed. According to Heppe, in the first two months of 1991, the organization has received 531 complaints, of which 127 were against Los Angeles police officers, seven of whom were assigned to the Foothill Division.
The failure to discipline officers engaged in violence, or who are dishonest about violence, and the refusal of prosecutors to file charges against such officers allow miscreants to be secure in the knowledge that no penalty will imposed on one who beats a person who may have committed a crime or who may have been less submissive than officers desire.
The code of silence, adhered to by any officer who intends to remain on the job, provides a virtually impenetrable layer of protection for violence-prone officers. It is clear that the officers who beat Rodney Glenn King felt no threat of exposure from the aiders and abettors who stood by and watched. And it is highly unlikely that the rookie officer would have engaged in such brutal behavior if his training officer had not implicitly shown approval by his silence. Such conduct perpetuates the corruption that undermines public confidence in law enforcement.
To cut his political losses, Gates announced that he will recommend prosecution of three of the officers. The public should recognize this as an attempt to make the issue vanish while giving the impression that someone is minding the store. He used the same tactic to defuse the outcry that followed the Dalton Street incident, in which officers trashed two South-Central Los Angeles apartment buildings, by offering up a few sacrificial lambs for prosecution on misdemeanor vandalism charges while ignoring the beatings that took place and the crimes of the more than 70 other officers who were involved.
Daryl Gates is unfit to lead the Los Angeles Police Department. His initial equivocation in the beating of King and his attempts to justify it by accusing King of being intoxicated demonstrate his lack of professional standards. But this is merely one in a series of events that should have led to his ouster. Previous statements by Gates--racist, violent and militaristic--set the tone for his troops. At best, he is an embarrassment; at worst, a menace and threat to the safety of the community.
The public should demand a special prosecutor to investigate and prosecute police crimes and should demand an end to the secrecy that shrouds the records showing police misconduct.
As tragic as the treatment of King was, it would be an even greater tragedy if the public were deceived into believing that his treatment at the hands of LAPD officers was an isolated incident.