Justice Department attorneys are doubtful that any of the Los Angeles police officers who stood by and watched as Rodney G. King was beaten can be prosecuted on federal charges, sources close to the case said Thursday.
The presence of a supervising officer--Sgt. Stacey C. Koon--at the scene of the incident undermines an earlier prosecution theory that the police officers who passively stood by failed to meet their legal obligation to keep the victim free from harm, one source said.
Moreover, Koon's claim in an internal Los Angeles Police Department investigation that he ordered the arresting officers to use batons on King could be an insurmountable obstacle if he repeats it in court.
Despite the doubts being expressed here, the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles has been insistent that charges against 17 Police Department officers who witnessed the incident but did not take part in the beating have not been ruled out. Four California Highway Patrol officers and two Los Angeles Unified School District officers also were bystanders.
Asked if federal prosecution now seems remote, Mike Emmick, who heads the public corruption unit, said: "I know of no facts or discussion of facts or law that would warrant that conclusion."
As for the facts failing to support the original theory of law enforcement officers having an obligation to keep citizens free from harm, Emmick said: "I'm not aware of any such conclusions or any discussions."
But sources familiar with discussions of the case in the criminal section of the Justice Department's civil rights division, which is overseeing the matter, confirmed skepticism about the potential for prosecution and said it is growing.
And a source in the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, who declined to be named, said it would be "a very hard case" to go after the officers who were bystanders.
This source also said he doubted that the Justice Department would seek to prosecute the participating officers on civil rights violations if they were acquitted in the local trial--unless officials were convinced that the local prosecution was not vigorously conducted.
A decision not to seek charges against the officers who were bystanders--unlikely to be made formally before the trial of the four officers who participated in the beating is completed--would limit prosecution in the case to the four officers who struck King.
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner announced May 10 that the county grand jury investigating the King beating had decided not to indict any of the Los Angeles police officers who were at the scene and did not take part in the attack.
Citing the lack of a state criminal statute under which the officers could be indicted, Reiner said he had referred the case to the U.S. attorney's office for investigation of possible violations of federal civil rights law.
John R. Dunne, assistant attorney general for civil rights, said no final determination has been made about federal prosecution of anyone involved in the King beating. He declined further comment.
Other federal moves, announced by Atty. Gen. Dick Thornburgh and Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) amid the fury that followed the repeated broadcasting of a videotape of the beating, appear to be slow getting off the ground.
For example, requests for proposals on a comprehensive study of police use of excessive force will be published next week in the Federal Register by the National Institute of Justice. That will be more than three months after Thornburgh directed the Justice Department's research arm to conduct the inquiry.
The study will examine the nature and extent of police brutality and what is being done through training, local police department policies and internal control mechanisms to control the use of excessive force.
Velva Walter, a spokeswoman for the Office of Justice Programs, said officials could not estimate how long it will take to complete the study. "Since there never has been a study like this, it's a little premature to say how long it will take," she said.
An independent inquiry into the alleged police violence, which Conyers announced in March would be conducted by the General Accounting Office, the investigating arm of Congress, has yet to begin.
A separate review by the Justice Department's civil rights division, covering the 15,000 complaints of police misconduct brought to the department over the last six fiscal years, is "still being worked on," a spokeswoman said.
The purpose of the review is to determine if any pattern can be found in the complaints, and if remedial steps, including legislation, are needed.
In another development stemming from the King case, Los Angeles police have begun monitoring all computer exchanges between squad cars in an effort to stop officers from sending personal messages.
Lt. Fred Nixon said Police Chief Daryl F. Gates has ordered daily monitoring by the department's Office of Operations after spot checks showed repeated abuses. Past messages sent via any of the department's 1,200 "mobile digital terminals" will also be randomly checked, he said.
Misuse of the computerized communications network made news earlier this week, when the judge in the beating case ruled that an allegedly racist message from a patrol car used by two defendants shortly before the March 3 incident could be used as evidence at their upcoming trial.
Nixon declined to say whether other seemingly racist remarks have been documented in the random checks that began "some time ago," but insisted that the stepped-up scrutiny is unrelated to the King case.
"The messages themselves may not be in and of themselves a discrediting type of conduct," Nixon said. "They may even be things like 'Let's get pizza' or 'Did you buy that new car?' But they are inappropriate."
Ostrow reported from Washington and Reich from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Lois Timnick in Los Angeles also contributed to this story.