When four Los Angeles police officers stand trial next month for the beating of Rodney G. King, the defense will argue that officers have no choice but to use their batons to subdue combative suspects because the city abandoned the police chokehold nearly a decade ago.
The defendants will also point out that officials who now are condemning them in the King case--including Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner--are the very ones who had conceded that the loss of the chokehold would result in more baton beatings and greater injuries to the public.
“The policy-makers of this city have failed in their responsibility to protect the citizens and support the police,” said Sgt. Stacey C. Koon, the highest ranking of the four indicted officers.
“They were all fully aware of the consequences of the changed use-of-force policy,” he continued. “They knew citizens and police officers were being injured and they failed to do anything to stop it and prevent it.”
He added, “The most appalling aspect is they approved it and are now recanting their action.”
Koon’s comments came Thursday in the form of an 11-page letter to The Times outlining the debate over the Police Commission’s decision in 1982 to eliminate the chokehold as an acceptable technique for officers when a confrontation does not pose a threat to life. A public furor had arisen after a number of people died when the neck restraint was applied by Los Angeles police.
Ironically, one death occurred in April, 1982, in Lake View Terrace, the same area where the police officers stopped King on March 3 and were captured on an amateur videotape beating and kicking the black motorist.
The chokehold issue is expected to be part of a multipronged defense in which the officers will also maintain that they simply were following accepted police procedures, and that King resisted arrest before the photographer started filming.
However, the counterargument--voiced by an LAPD training supervisor and others Thursday--is that the officers who struck King acted outside department policy by delivering up to 56 baton blows, many while King lay unresisting on the ground.
While the chokehold issue was being debated by the Police Commission, Gates argued strenuously that if officers were denied use of the chokehold, more severe injuries to citizens would result.
In the federal courts, where one lawsuit over the chokehold went before the U.S. Supreme Court, then-City Atty. Reiner also warned that batons could cause serious injuries and deaths.
Reiner, who is prosecuting the officers in the King case, declined to be interviewed. Gates, in an interview with The Times two weeks after the King beating, reiterated his concerns that without the chokehold, his officers reach for their batons when their orders are not obeyed.
“I was really reluctant because the next step was the baton,” he said. “I just cannot visualize our police officers jumping from verbalization immediately to the baton. I had a really hard time with that. A really hard time.”
But Gates and others have argued that while officers may be turning more readily to the baton, that is no excuse for the number of blows that struck King.
“I am a firm believer that if I use the baton just once, that’s all I need,” said a training supervisor at the Los Angeles Police Academy, who asked not to be identified. “We use the minimum amount of force to overcome a suspect’s force. Once that’s accomplished, you don’t need any more strikes. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that too much was used that night.”
Joe Callahan, a use-of-force expert who testified to the Los Angeles County Grand Jury before the officers were indicted, said it was clear from the videotape that excessive force was used against King, and that he did not appear to be resisting arrest.
“There is no assaultive behavior that would justify a baton use and, in this case, a continued baton use,” Callahan said.
In the wake of the King beating, the chief has ordered an internal LAPD review to evaluate the department’s entire use-of-force policy and determine why there was “a breakdown” in police procedures when King was arrested.
“We want to find out what exactly that breakdown was, what caused it and if there is anything that we can do to prevent that from occurring again,” said police spokesman Cmdr. Robert Gil.
“We’re going to look at everything,” Gil continued. “We want to make some calm, cool, decisions based on some good, sound studies.”
The current department guidelines state: “The baton shall not be used to gain compliance to verbal commands absent combative or aggressive actions by the suspect.”
In the videotape, King cannot be seen fighting with the officers. But the defense attorneys for the indicted officers contend that King was unresponsive and combative when he first stepped out of his vehicle, making the use of batons appropriate.
Darryl Mounger, a former LAPD sergeant and now the attorney representing Koon, said that had the officers been allowed to use the chokehold, very little violence would have been visible on the videotape as King was taken into custody.
“Normally, you spin him around, choke him out and nobody gets hurt,” Mounger said. “But when they took that tool away, you were forced to physically fight with people and that’s when officers began sticking people.”
He added that city officials, including Gates, Reiner and the Police Commission, knew what the consequences would be if the chokehold were dropped.
“I’m sure they never intended the batons to be used quite as graphically as they saw in the King tape,” the lawyer said. “But nonetheless, that’s what they require their officers to do by policy.”
Patrick Thistle, also a former police officer in Southern California who now is an attorney for indicted Officer Laurence M. Powell, said countless officers have wished to be able to use the chokehold again.
“From my own personal experience,” Thistle said, “when you’re using a baton, there are three things moving: you, the person you’re dealing with, and the baton. And they’re not a perfectly accurate weapon under those circumstances.
“But the chokehold is a tactic that once it’s in place, it’s quick and your subject is temporarily unconscious and in custody.”
Those thoughts are echoed throughout the Police Department and at the Los Angeles Police Protective League, where officers and supervisors have told The Times that they believe the batons cause many more injuries than the chokehold.
“When we lost the chokehold, and went to the baton, we started breaking everybody up,” said the academy instructor. “If you look at use-of-force reports, you see baton, baton, baton, and you see injury, injury injury. The baton is the primary weapon we use. There’s no secret about that.
“And as a result, it causes a lot and a lot and a lot of injuries. We’re talking major injuries. It’s a metal alloy that can break wrists, and an arm, and these are the types of injuries we see.”
In the debate over chokeholds, community activists complained that the technique had resulted in the deaths of as many of 17 people between 1975 and 1982. They helped persuade the Police Commission to ban the chokehold--although the U.S. Supreme Court had upheld its use--because the techniques were being used by officers in situations that were not life-threatening.
Those who supported use of the chokehold pointed out that not all the deaths were directly attributable to the technique.
In addition, Gates, in a report to the Police Commission, said that in the year after the chokehold was forbidden, the number of officers injured in use-of-force incidents increased 181%, and that the number of suspects injured during the same period rose 395%.
Koon, who like Powell and the other indicted officers, Theodore J. Briseno and Timothy E. Wind, has declined to be interviewed, wrote to The Times because he was “concerned for the street copper who doesn’t have the appropriate tools to do their job.”
“Officers have a valid and legitimate need to use force,” he wrote. “Crime and violence are real.”
Koon, who has publicly called on Gates to resign, strongly chastised public officials who, he said, knew that doing away with the chokehold would increase the use of the baton, and now are condemning him and his fellow officers for what is seen on the videotape.
“Basically, the same individuals are in power today,” Koon wrote. And “there appears to have existed a conspiracy of silence on the policy of beating uncooperative suspects.”
NO CHANGE OF VENUE: A judge refused to move the trial of four LAPD officers in the King beating to another county. B1