Had Rodney King not had the benefit of videotape, you wouldn’t know his name today. I know this because I’m a deputy public defender for the County of Orange, with dozens of clients who have been victims of police brutality, with only their word against the officers’ word. This isn’t just a Los Angeles problem.
Ah, you say, here’s another liberal defense lawyer jumping on the Rodney King bandwagon. Right and wrong. Yes, I am another liberal, proud to safeguard the constitutional rights of all citizens.
I am also an ex-cop.
My first great disillusionment in law enforcement was an unforgettable moment in the Orange County Sheriff’s Training Academy. A crusty investigator was teaching us about probable cause--suspicious criminal activity that justifies police contact with a citizen. One of the recruits was having trouble grasping the concept. Exasperated, the investigator leaned forward conspiratorially. With melodramatic flair, he whipped a ball-point pen from his pocket and held it between his fingers, rotating his outstretched arm slowly for all to see: “This is probable cause.” He explained that what mattered was how the officer described what happened. He was teaching a creative-writing course in law-enforcement fiction.
On the street, I was shocked by the attitude of a small percentage of officers. They were the zealots, frequently arresting people for resisting arrest and for assault on a police officer. Curiously, it always appeared to be the arrestee who came out on the short end of the nightstick. Even more curiously, these people were often arrested for only one or both of these charges. Why were they apprehended in the first place?
Other officers, in the majority, were able to work a 20-year career without a single arrest for either of these charges.
Too often, defendants would arrive at the station with an officer gleefully recounting how he had slammed on his brakes so that the handcuffed and helpless “dirtbag” would have his face “waffled” by the metal grille separating the patrol unit’s front and back seats. Gang-in-blue officers have the luxury of selecting their victims: almost always male, poorly educated, frequently with some sort of criminal history and a member of a minority group.
Newport Beach officers gained notoriety in the early 1980s for their efforts to keep Newport Beach “clean.” One of their unwritten codes was NIN: "(Negro) in Newport.” Officers would stop the cars of blacks on a pretext and strongly encourage them to leave the city. The radio chatter would describe the incident as “November-India-November.”
Ah, but I digress. If Rodney King had been my client, without benefit of videotape, there would be a thick stack of protective police reports by the officers who witnessed the beating, neatly justifying and minimizing the brutal actions of their brethren. As reflected by the casual attitude of the onlooking officers, jovial post-event radio colloquy and supervisorial participation, what occurred was standard operating procedure for a certain cadre of the LAPD’s less-than-finest.
I have worked as a criminal defense attorney for Orange County for nearly three years and I have dealt with officers from 12 police agencies. In that time, I have handled dozens of cases in which my clients told me of outrageous police brutality. The best they can expect, if their injuries are serious, is to have their cases dismissed, often after several days in jail and perhaps loss of their job. Often enough, only the charge of assaulting the officer will be dropped, in exchange for a guilty plea to the underlying charge. Of course, my clients have the option of fighting the case, but to do that they almost always must remain in custody. Judges are reluctant to release someone accused of attacking a police officer.
If the victim perseveres, he is entitled to a hearing in which the judge reviews the disciplinary history of the accused officer. But in order for there to be a history of brutality, complaints must have been registered with, yes, the police department responsible for the brutality.
The good, the bad and the ugly of society are represented in the ranks of law enforcement, and being a police officer is a tough, often dangerous job. Still, the vast majority of officers never behave as those officers did; they are as outraged as the rest of us by the King affair. But can you expect them to snitch on their brethren? Would you want one of your colleagues to be responsible for your life as a back-up officer if you had reported him for violence and he despised you for it? Would you report someone who may have saved your life in the past?
The police must be policed. What this takes is civilian review and civilian governance for every department. Injured and harassed citizens must have access to a fair tribunal so they can report intimidation without fear of reprisal or further intimidation. This means a permanent, independent, elected citizen review board with disciplinary powers, not just a free-wheeling blue-ribbon appointed commission. The board must have free access to evidence, including police audio tapes.
Fair and neutral review of police actions will restore the honor and integrity of the majority of officers and will save millions of tax dollars that we’ll otherwise keep paying out in settlements to brutality victims who somehow prove their cases.