In unusual public remarks, state Supreme Court Justice Armand Arabian warned Thursday that Los Angeles police are losing public support and criticized them for a slow response to rioting that swept the city.
Arabian said much of the public now suffers not only from a fear of excessive force by officers but also from concern that police, because of low morale and a hostile environment, will not react aggressively to crime.
"This fear became a reality during the recent riots," Arabian said. "Where was the protection and service? Any slower response and we would have seen photos of policemen pasted on milk containers and listed as missing."
The justice said also that "problem officers" in the Los Angeles Police Department may not sufficiently fear that unlawful or improper conduct will be punished. "Unchecked, they could bankrupt the city," he said.
"Unless there is fear of internal discipline . . . you (in law enforcement) will be slow to bind your wounds, and your destiny will fall into the hands of others," he said.
Supreme Court members make relatively few public speeches and rarely address controversial subjects. Arabian's discussion of the violent aftermath of the Rodney G. King beating case was included in a speech prepared for delivery Thursday night to a Pasadena civic group honoring law enforcement officers.
Arabian, 57, was named to the court by Gov. George Deukmejian in 1990 after 18 years on the state Court of Appeal and Los Angeles Superior and Municipal courts. In Supreme Court cases, he usually votes with the conservative majority in upholding most death sentences and limiting criminal defendants' rights.
In Thursday's speech, Arabian was sympathetic to the difficult task law officers face trying to quell widespread violence, and credited them with preventing "total pillage and plunder" of the Los Angeles area during the riots. But illegal acts by some of their number are making officers' job even tougher, he said.
"Sadly, the (badge) today is viewed as tarnished and that perception has become a factor in the inspiration of felons to their own transgressions," he said. "What was rare has become standard fare."
In recent years, he said, law enforcement officers have been found guilty of theft and laundering of drug money; a police sergeant was convicted of raping a female motorist he detained, and city authorities were forced to pay more than $11 million in 1990 to settle civil claims of excessive force and false arrest.
Officers are duty-bound to use force if necessary to combat crime in the most dangerous situations, he said. "But how much force and what kind?" he asked. "Enough to make the world shudder?"
Arabian said that recent opinion polls showed a majority of those surveyed as saying police brutality is common in some communities and that it more likely occurs when suspects are black or Latino. "You expect hatred and fear from criminals," he said. "You certainly don't need it from the law-abiding."
The justice cited concern that at the same time, officers are being less aggressive combatting crime in order to protect their careers. He pointed to a recent report showing felony arrests by the Police Department and Sheriff's Department declining.
Arabian said instances of racism, sexism and other forms of bias revealed in the Christopher Commission investigation should serve as a warning to guard against improper conduct by officers.
"Radio logs and computer messages (were) sent by officers which chronicle the demeaning of certain races, colors or creeds," he said. "Are there any of you who are not offended by a transmission referring to our citizens as 'Gorillas in the Mist?' "
Arabian was to present the speech Thursday night before the Pasadena chapter of the International Footprint Assn., an organization of law enforcement, business and professional people interested in police problems.