Even before the Rodney King beating, South Bay police say, it was not easy being a cop.
And now it’s harder.
Although the officers involved in the King case were with the Los Angeles Police Department, South Bay officers say the video images of the beating have cast a pall of suspicion over everyone wearing the uniform of any department.
Black motorists pulled over for traffic infractions accuse officers of stopping them because they are black, police say. Other motorists tauntingly ask whether the officer is going to start hitting them. Snide comments, whispers and stares follow them as they walk their beats.
In Redondo Beach, an officer strolling through a mall walked into a clothing store to check that all was well. A nervous manager promptly asked him to leave.
“She kind of apologized, but said, ‘Your uniform isn’t very popular right now,’ and she talked about the video,” said the officer, who did not want to be identified. “She said I was driving away business.”
Such an incident has become all too typical, officials at South Bay departments agreed.
“It makes you sad to know that the image of law enforcement is going to be hurt, perhaps for many years,” Redondo Beach Capt. Roger Bass said. “We all feel concern. You feel damaged by it.”
In Torrance, the King video has opened old wounds for the city’s department.
On May 15, 1988, a teen-age party-goer videotaped two Torrance officers arresting a 20-year-old man. In the tape, one officer can be seen holding the man in a chokehold while the other strikes him repeatedly with his baton. Finally, the man slumps unconscious to the ground, and one of the officers jumps with both feet on his leg.
Administrators ultimately concluded that the video captured only a small part of what took place and that the officers were being threatened by a large crowd at the party. Privacy rules prohibited officials from saying what disciplinary action was taken against the officers, but both still work for the department.
“Our incident was put to rest a long time ago, but it’s being thrown back in our faces again,” Sgt. Ron Traber said. “It’s something we put behind us, and we don’t want to have it rehashed just because somebody else’s agency has gotten involved in something similar.”
The reminders come in brief moments of confrontation.
A few days after the King beating tape was first aired, a man stopped to inspect a police recruiting poster in front of Torrance’s substation at the Del Amo Fashion Center, Lt. Harold J. Maestri said.
Turning to a nearby officer, the man said: “Gee, I didn’t realize they paid you guys so much to beat people.”
Then the man turned and left.
Maestri said he doubts that the comment reflects the general public’s view of police officers.
“The larger portion of the community, I believe they’re intelligent and mature enough to realize this incident only involved a few people,” he said.
But the constant publicity about the King beating and the annoying reminders that some people do lump all police officers together can be exhausting.
“I’m just sick to death of hearing about Rodney King,” Hawthorne Sgt. Robert Cooper said. “It’s really a shame what happened, and taking it at face value it looks like there were some things done that shouldn’t have been done, but, for God’s sakes, what are we going to do? Round up all the cops and shoot them?”
Three to five times a day, people ask him about the video, he said. Nearly three-quarters of the black people he stops during the day accuse him of racism.
“ ‘You’re only doing this because I’m black. I know how it is. I’ve seen the videotape,’ ” Cooper said people tell him. “There is no acceptable response. If you say no, (they think) you’re a liar. If you say yes, you’re a bigot.”
Black officers say they too are putting up with more abuse.
“I don’t get so much like some of the white officers (do) . . . but I do get snide remarks like, ‘Oh, you’re going to beat me now with your baton?’ ” Hawthorne Officer William Ray said. “Police work is definitely getting harder and harder as the years go on.”
Within the South Bay, the video’s impact has been felt most strongly at the LAPD’s Harbor Division, where officers are reminded daily that King was beaten by some of their own.
“There has been a strong level of support and understanding for us among many in the community. I think, though, in talking to officers, that they sense people are still looking at them like they have two heads,” said Capt. Joe De Ladurantey, the division commander.
The video has left even relatives of officers wondering what may be happening inside the department.
Harbor Division Sgt. Rick Dedmon, a 17-year veteran of the department, said his two children--ages 10 and 13--were so troubled by the tape that he had to sit them down for a long talk.
“They were concerned, but I told them I’d never done anything like that, never seen anything like that,” Dedmon said. “And that made them feel better . . . because they weren’t sure.”
Since the video’s release, Harbor Division officers say they have been eyed suspiciously, insulted, and treated with disdain and sometimes outright fear. In response, De Ladurantey has asked officers to spend more time talking with people, even if that means listening to criticism, to help improve public sentiment.
In general, however, department administrators said there is little they can do to respond to the negative publicity.
Most South Bay departments have reminded officers to be familiar with use-of-force policies and to behave as politely and professionally as possible, but none have instituted special training programs since the beating.
“Our department has a big push (on for) service-oriented type policing where we work with the community,” said Lt. Drake Robles of the Lomita sheriff’s substation. “This kind of brought to light how important that really is.”
One key approach, Robles said, has been to tell officers to always be on their best behavior.
“We should be at a point where we conduct our everyday activities as if we were being videotaped.”
Times staff writers George Hatch, Kim Kowsky, Greg Krikorian, Marc Lacey, Deborah Schoch and Tim Waters contributed to this report.