The acquittal of two Long Beach police officers Monday on charges of assault and filing a false report closes a chapter in the struggle for police accountability in Southern California.
One of the accused, Officer Mark Dickey, called the dismissal of the charges the right verdict and clear vindication. The case, the longest ever in Long Beach, ended in a hung jury, with jurors split 11 to 1. The only African-American on the jury, Charles Woolery, was also the only one who voted to convict the officers. The case hinged on the videotaped footage of an encounter between Dickey and me.
The district attorney's office, which rarely prosecutes police officers, vigorously prosecuted the case, relying on my testimony and the unedited footage shot by an NBC-TV news crew. To prove the misdemeanor assault charges, Deputy Dist. Atty. Herbert Lapin had to show that Dickey intentionally used excessive force by shoving me into a plate-glass window. He also had to prove that both officers intentionally falsified their report of the incident.
The attorneys representing the officers based their defense on the claim that they had been set up. During cross-examination, attorney Al Ramsey described the effort to "entrap" these officers as racist. He referred to the fact that the victim was dressed like a gang member in a high-crime area.
Employees of the Hawthorne Police Department, where I served as an officer from 1982 to May, 1989, took the stand to testify about my alleged professional and moral shortcomings. My entire career, not Officer Dickey's, was spotlighted by Ramsey to excuse the violence of Jan. 14, 1989. I felt like a rape victim whose life history was on trial instead of that of the accused.
The defense brought in four experts on police tactics to say that the conduct of the officers was justified.
The report by the accused officers stated that I had leaped from my vehicle, assumed a fighting stance and began cursing at Dickey. In the report, he said that he had grasped me from behind in an attempt to control me. While in this position, he wrote, I suddenly lunged forward, crashing into the window. But under cross-examination, the officers admitted that this was not true. They explained, with the aid of experts, that they were suffering from post-traumatic-stress disorder when they wrote the report. The report reflected events as they remembered them, they said.
Former Los Angeles County Sheriff's Lt. Joe Callanan, testifying as a police expert, called the report 90% accurate compared to the evidence. He was countered by Los Angeles police training expert Fred Nichols. Nichols told the jury that the report was inaccurate and that the officers had used excessive force in at least four instances during the encounter.
After weighing the evidence, the jury began deliberations May 7 that ended, hopelessly deadlocked, May 13. The case was dismissed and is not likely to be retried.
Commenting afterward, many of the jurors said that after hearing the defense experts and seeing the enhanced version of the tape that it was clear that I had not been shoved into the window and that the errors in the police report were unintentional.
My reaction to the verdict and the comments from jurors and the two officers is that no clearer evidence of injustice in our criminal justice system is possible.
Rife with racism for the past 200 years, our justice system has often egregiously failed to protect the rights of African-Americans, both as victims and as suspects. This trial was part of a continuum. It smacks of good 'ol Southern lynch law. If one can get a jury of one's peers, anything is legal. Legal in this case meant persuading jurors to identify with the officers and to view them as victims. Ramsey played to the racial predilections of the jurors. At one point, Ramsey posed the question, "Don't most Negro people like to use the word f-- ." With questions like these planted in the minds of the jurors, it's hard to believe that the outcome had nothing to do with race. If this case been tried in Compton, I'm sure there would have been a verdict more consistent with the word justice .
The jury in this case experienced a bizarre form of self-induced hypnosis. This hypnosis was so powerful that in spite of the strongest physical evidence (the videotape), the jury could not see anything revolting about the conduct of the officers.
After the so-called Long Beach sting, I was retired, though there was no misconduct on my part. The two Long Beach officers were retired as a reward for their conduct, though even their department called it misconduct. Disciplinary action initiated by the internal affairs division of the department was never acted on. And Los Angeles officers in the Rodney King beating case are pursuing the same way out.
Some people have expressed surprise at the outcome of the Long Beach trial. Others have called it unfair. Neither of these words encapsulate the injustice. What is most tragic is that the outcome implies that the rule of law is not yet applicable with regard to the conduct of law-enforcement personnel. It says to young people that they can join certain professions that will place them above the law. It also raises serious questions about the public's tolerance of violence against certain groups. And it demonstrates just how expensive justice is. After sacrificing my career, my reputation and personal safety, getting "justice" in this system has still cost more than I have in my pockets.
If there are any heroes here, I'm not one of them--and neither is Mark Dickey. The real heroes are Fred Nichols and Charles Woolery. Nichols won't make any friends on the LAPD for testifying against fellow police officers. As for Charles Woolery, he withstood four days of prodding by fellow jurors, holding out for what he believed was right. But that's what this case was really about. Doing the right thing means that sometimes you won't have the majority on your side, and challenging the majority, in spite of the odds, is what makes real heroes.