Media Failed to Examine Alleged LAPD Abuses : Press: Eulia Love case brought a tougher look. But complaints about patterns of use of force weren’t explored.
Before Rodney G. King, there was Eulia Love.
Love was a 39-year-old black woman who was shot to death by two Los Angeles police officers early in 1979 as she was about to throw a kitchen knife at them.
For the record:
12:00 AM, May. 27, 1992 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday May 27, 1992 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 5 Metro Desk 2 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Police reporting--Times reporter David Freed, who was described in a story in Tuesday’s Times as having left the police beat for The Times “a few months” before the Rodney G. King beating, actually left that assignment more than 18 months before the beating.
The Herald Examiner--then a decade away from its demise--quickly made her a Page 1 story. But The Times published only two brief stories in the first week and did not put her on Page 1 until more than three months later--and then only after Esquire magazine and the California Journal had embarrassed The Times by criticizing it for missing the story.
“We were roundly trashed . . . and they were right. We blew it,” says David Rosenzweig, then a Times reporter and now an assistant managing editor.
The Times “blew it” for a variety of reasons: Miscommunication. A reluctance to play catch-up on a story that the Herald Examiner quickly appropriated as its own. A lack of a strong black presence and any real competitive zeal in The Times newsroom. Perhaps most important, The Times had long suffered from what Noel Greenwood, then senior assistant metropolitan editor and now senior editor, called at the time a “weak, penny-ante operation” directing local news coverage.
The Times had been struggling for two years to reorganize and improve its local coverage, and the Love debacle spurred further reorganization. In the process, Rosenzweig says, it also made the Love case the latest watershed in Times coverage of the LAPD.
Rosenzweig was made city editor of the paper in late 1979 and one of his primary objectives was to break away from the paper’s traditional “cops and robbers coverage.”
“One of the first things I did--maybe the first thing,” he says “was to pick a reporter to cover the Police Department as a political entity.”
In a 1984 study, “Police Accountability and the Media,” Jerome H. Skolnick, longtime police expert and law professor at UC Berkeley, praised the work of David Johnston, the reporter whom Rosenzweig chose for the assignment, and said that if the media did more such reporting on “policing as process and institution and less about disjointed and sensational events (like crime),” citizens would be better able to “hold police accountable.”
But many LAPD officials saw such “process” reporting as a sign that the media was out to “get the LAPD.”
Journalists deny this, but the media did repeatedly mischaracterize the circumstances surrounding Love’s death. Story after story said that police had shot Love “in a dispute over a gas bill.”
The police do not collect gas bills, though. Officers shot Love because she was about to throw an 11-inch knife at them after having assaulted a gas company serviceman with a shovel earlier in the day.
Not that her actions justify what the officers did; the Police Commission accused the officers of “serious errors in judgment.” Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, though officially ruling that the shooting was “in policy,” conceded: “Anyway you viewed it, it was a bad shooting.”
Nevertheless, as recently as last year, stories on the case in the Daily News and Los Angeles magazine described the shooting as having occurred “in a dispute over her utility bill” or some variation of that theme.
In the aftermath of the Love shooting, police also complained that the media routinely ignored stories favorable to the department, published headlines that were sensationalized, inaccurate and misleading and did little to convey to the public the growing day-to-day problems--and dangers--that police encounter.
In an interview conducted--like all others for today’s story--before the recent riots, Rosenzweig agreed with that latter criticism.
“If there’s any one thing that concerns me about . . . media coverage,” Rosenzweig said, it is that the media are “judged by how tough they are on the Police Department.”
“I’m sure there’s not a day that goes by that some cop isn’t risking his or her life to save some kid or whatever, and I don’t know that that’s adequately reported,” Rosenzweig said. Over time, that imbalance creates “a false image of the department.”
Nevertheless, Rosenzweig said, he “wouldn’t give up one single tough story that we’ve done.”
In the early 1980s, there were several tough stories on the LAPD, in The Times and elsewhere.
In 1980, a Times series on “Watts: 15 Years After the Riot” included three stories dealing with the issue of police brutality and racism toward blacks. Seventeen months later, The Times published a lengthy investigation showing how ineffective the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office was in prosecuting officers accused of using excessive force. Of the 355 police shootings the district attorney had investigated in the previous three years, the story said, “only one resulted in a prosecution. It was lost.”
The Daily News and, especially, the Herald Examiner wrote about police use of force with some frequency at the time. In 1986, the Herald Examiner published the strongest pre-Rodney King examination of the issue, a three-part series that concluded:
“Police shootings and payouts in use-of-force lawsuits have reached record levels in Los Angeles.”
Perhaps the biggest controversy over alleged brutality and racism in the LAPD came in 1982, when Chief Gates tried to explain why 12 blacks had been among 16 people who died between 1975 and 1982 from applications of chokeholds designed to subdue violent subjects.
Gates told a Times reporter that he wanted department experts to investigate “a hunch” he had that maybe more blacks than whites had died from chokeholds because “in some blacks, when it is applied, the veins or arteries do not open up as fast as they do on normal people.”
Gates later explained that all he meant was that because blacks tend to be more susceptible than whites to high blood pressure and hypertension, it might be worthwhile to find out if there were some physiological explanation, some anomaly in their circulatory system, that rendered them more vulnerable than whites to the effects of a chokehold.
But black and civil liberties activists were quick to attack Gates as a racist who had said blacks were not “normal people.”
Rosenzweig says he took the “normal people” quotation out of reporter Charles P. Wallace’s original story because he thought it was unfair to Gates and Times readers to use it without further explanation. He told Wallace to go back to Gates the next day before publishing the quote in a second story.
Gates says that in the second interview it was Wallace who first used the phrase “normal people,” and that he merely agreed with that characterization of his remarks after Wallace “persisted.”
Wallace says he has no recollection of using those words, but when Gates demanded a copy of the tape of that interview, The Times refused, as most newspapers refuse all requests from anyone for reporters’ tapes or notes.
But The Times published the transcript of the first interview, which clearly showed Gates using the words normal people , without prompting.
The Times gave fairly conservative treatment to Wallace’s first “normal people” story, publishing it under a one-column headline on the first page of the Metro section and including quotes from two forensic pathologists who dismissed Gates’ theory. But when civil rights leaders seized on the story, it became big news in all the local media.
As much as Gates prides himself on speaking his mind--on the record--he both revels in and resents criticism triggered by his shoot-from-the-lip style, and in this instance he remains convinced that the media deliberately distorted an innocent, if clumsily phrased remark to embarrass him.
While the chokehold firestorm was still raging, the news media continued their coverage of yet another LAPD controversy: The department’s Public Disorder Intelligence Division was found to be illegally spying on many public figures--including Mayor Tom Bradley--and passing that information on to a private, right-wing organization.
Gates minimized the significance and scope of the intelligence material that was gathered and he insisted that--as he says in his new book--he was “eliminating undercover PDID personnel as fast as I could.” After more than three years of critical coverage in the local media, the Police Commission abolished the unit in 1983.
Joel Sappell--hired by The Times because of his vigorous coverage of allegations of brutality and other LAPD misconduct while at the Herald Examiner--wrote most of the major PDID stories and continued to provide generally vigorous police coverage for The Times when he succeeded Johnston on the beat in 1981.
David Freed did the same when he took over in 1986.
One of Freed’s first major projects disclosed that the LAPD was “beset by de facto segregation and racial tension, as well as resentment of female officers,” despite having settled a federal lawsuit by agreeing to hire more women and minorities. Then, in 1988, Freed wrote about the LAPD’s Special Investigations Section, a “secretive, 19-man unit (that) watches armed robbers and burglars but rarely tries to arrest them until after the thieves have victimized shopkeepers, homeowners and others.”
Neither The Times nor any other mainstream news organization took a serious look at the pattern of police use of excessive force at the end of the 1980s, though--not even as evidence mounted that the LAPD was increasingly resorting to force, especially in minority communities, and that discipline for such misconduct was minimal.
Long before the jury in Simi Valley handed down not guilty verdicts for the officers in the Rodney G. King beating, the LAPD’s own statistics showed that:
* The number of complaints about LAPD officers using excessive force doubled from 1983 to 1988 before declining the next two years.
* City payouts in settlements, judgments and awards for all LAPD-related litigation increased from $891,000 in 1980 to $9.1 million in 1990 and $14.7 million in 1991.
* Less than 1% of the more than 1,400 officers investigated on suspicion of using excessive force between 1986 and 1990 were fired, and more than 30 officers whom the LAPD found guilty of improperly shooting people were allowed to remain on the force.
* A significant number of LAPD officers had multiple complaints of excessive force filed against them.
Peter H. King, city editor of The Times from 1989 to 1991 and now a Times columnist, says he has always found police statistics “very suspect” and “notorious for being unreliable.” But the Christopher Commission, appointed to investigate the LAPD after the Rodney King beating, found some police statistics reliable enough--and alarming enough--to cite them prominently in its report, after which The Times and other media made them Page 1 news. Some media--most notably the Daily News--made them Page 1 news before the Christopher Commission report. But no one, including the Daily News and The Times, thought them worthy of serious attention in the years immediately before the King beating.
Moreover, statistical evidence was only a small portion of what was available in those years.
There were also increasing numbers of individual stories with headlines such as “Police Probing Use of Force in Man’s Death” and “Officer Suspended in Beating Case” and “Boy, 15, Killed by Police After Traffic Chase” and “Officer Fired for Shooting of Freeway Driver.”
* In March, 1988, LAPD officers at Los Angeles International Airport mistook former major league baseball star Joe Morgan--a black--for a drug courier. They grabbed him around the neck, threw him to the floor and handcuffed him. A jury awarded Morgan $540,000.
* A month later, the LAPD launched Operation Hammer, anti-gang sweeps that resulted in tens of thousands of arrests. Many blacks and Latinos believed that this amounted to racial harassment. On one night, officers in Operation Hammer arrested 1,453 people--1,350 of whom were released with no charges filed.
* In August, 1988, 88 LAPD officers stormed two apartment houses at Dalton Avenue and 39th Street, near the Coliseum. The officers broke windows, smashed walls, ceilings and furniture with sledgehammers and battering rams and ripped out sinks and toilets.
No evidence of criminal activity was found in or around the house, and the city paid $3.8 million to settle lawsuits arising from the raid.
* In 1990, LAPD officers stopped former Laker basketball star Jamaal Wilkes, ordered him out of his car and handcuffed him, seemingly for no other reason than that he was a black man in a nice car driving through a white business district.
Charges that the LAPD used excessive force were not limited to blacks. In 1989, Operation Rescue accused LAPD officers of brutality in removing their volunteer protesters at Los Angeles abortion clinics.
The Times and most of the major local media covered these individual incidents, but except for the L.A. Weekly, an alternative newspaper, no news organization put many of the incidents together to look for a pattern.
The Weekly, which has begun to shed its longtime image of journalistic irresponsibility prompted by ideological bias, published a lengthy story by Joseph Domanick in February, 1990, on the “hard-charging, deadly style of policing” in Los Angeles--its origins, its impact and its lack of public accountability.
In mid-1990, Time magazine examined a narrower issue: Was the police war on drugs and gangs in Los Angeles “being waged indiscriminately on law-abiding black and Hispanic citizens?”
But more than 100 interviews and a search of computerized databases by The Times did not turn up a single example of a serious examination of these phenomena by any mainstream Los Angeles media.
Minorities and police watchdog groups increasingly complained that the LAPD of the late 1980s was clearly not the LAPD of “Dragnet” days--if it ever had been--but the news media, oddly, seemed less interested than the entertainment media.
Suddenly--ironically--the new media model of the LAPD officer was not bland, polite, by the book Sgt. Joe Friday; it was Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs, the violent, throw the book (and the suspect) out the window vigilante cop of “Lethal Weapon.”
Just as “Dragnet” may have influenced police behavior in the 1950s and 1960s, “Lethal Weapon” and other movies and TV programs showing brutal cops with little regard for legal niceties may have influenced police behavior in the 1980s and early 1990s. After all, what was the biggest grossing movie of 1991? “Terminator 2,” in which a bionic brutalizer, as relentless as he is soulless, wears an LAPD uniform while mindlessly destroying people and property.
“Reviewing (LAPD) discipline as I have for the past several years, and seeing the conversations of police officers reported and seeing some of their acts reported, they are very much like some of the things I see on these cop dramas on television,” LAPD Assistant Chief David D. Dotson says.
Police say they may have had to use more force in recent years in self-defense; the people they encounter are often increasingly violent and unpredictable--high on drugs, indifferent to the value of human life, and obsessed with proving their courage to their peers.
But more LAPD officers were feloniously killed in the line of duty in the 1920s--and in the 1970s--than in the 1980s.
No one has charged that all--or even most--LAPD officers are brutal or racist. The Christopher Commission said “scrutiny would be appropriate” for the 5% of the department’s officers who were responsible for 20% of the use of force complaints between 1987 and 1991.
Still, should not all these examples of excessive use of force, often against blacks, have suggested a possible pattern of behavior that was worthy of serious journalistic examination in the years immediately before the King beating?
Surely, the angry reaction of many in the black community to the not guilty verdicts in the King case is a measure of how deeply aggrieved many had long felt because of police conduct.
Nevertheless, Craig Turner, metropolitan editor of The Times since 1989, says a large-scale examination of alleged police brutality and racism was not necessary before the King beating because stories on excessive force were part of the paper’s regular news coverage.
“People who were reading The Times knew what was going on in LAPD,” he says.
Many people disagree--including Stanley K. Sheinbaum, president of the Police Commission.
Sheinbaum says the piecemeal coverage was not done “in an effective way.”
Warren Christopher, chairman of the Christopher Commission, says the information for a thorough examination was available--and he adds: “I would think some investigative reporting, some good, hard analysis . . . might have produced more warning signals than we received.”
Many reporters concede that they should have been more alert to misconduct in the LAPD.
“We, collectively, should have done something sooner,” says Robert Reinhold, Los Angeles bureau chief for the New York Times.
So why didn’t reporters write those stories?
Reinhold says that with only two reporters in his bureau to cover four states, he just did not have time.
Moreover, police brutality is difficult to prove because it almost invariably comes down to the word of a complainant vs. the word of an officer, and most reporters are reluctant to report on such controversies without stronger evidence. As the verdicts in the King beating trial proved, even seemingly incontrovertible evidence--a live videotape--may not be legally persuasive in a police brutality case.
Freed of The Times says he reported individual incidents of brutality when he could, but he says he heard no reports of widespread use of excessive force, against blacks or anyone else, while he was covering the LAPD from 1986 to 1990. One of Freed’s successors, Andrea Ford, says she did hear such reports--repeatedly--in South-Central Los Angeles but was unable to interest her editors in the story.
How about the editors themselves?
William F. Thomas, editor of The Times from 1972 to 1989, says The Times wrote periodically about police mistreatment of blacks, but he says he is not sure that general police behavior “ever got to be that big a deal in the city” while he was editor, and he does not recall anyone ever suggesting a story on brutality as an LAPD syndrome.
Wasn’t it the media’s responsibility to make it “that big a deal?”
“Maybe it was,” he says. But it would have been “damn hard” to prove a pattern of brutality, condoned at the top, in the LAPD and he was not interested in a “futile” investigation yielding “an unprovable thesis.”
Shelby Coffey, who succeeded Thomas as editor, says the stories The Times published on police misconduct were “strong and appropriate to the occasions and were . . . very good in terms of giving context and raising questions where appropriate.”
Shouldn’t The Times have undertaken a major overview of the problem?
“You can put forth any number of hypothetical series on any number of subjects,” Coffey says.
This was not hypothetical, though. The evidence, as Christopher says, was there. But Ron Kaye, deputy managing editor in charge of local coverage at the Daily News, says readers did not seem interested in stories on police brutality before the King beating. The Daily News had published an exhaustive study in October, 1990, on questionable shootings by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and there was little public or official response.
“You can’t beat people to death with a story unless they care,” Kaye says.
The King beating--broadcast into homes night after night in all its sickening force--made people care.
David Parrish and Beth Barrett, the Daily News reporters who wrote the stories on the Sheriff’s Department, say that during their research they kept hearing that the LAPD’s record on use of force might be worse and they decided they would look at that next. Five months later, when King was beaten, that is what they did.
Interestingly, The Times also looked at the Sheriff’s Department in 1990 and--five months before the Daily News stories--The Times published a careful examination of excessive use of force by deputies. That story said lawsuits for excessive force were filed “at a higher rate” against the Sheriff’s Department than against the LAPD--and that such suits against the LAPD had declined over the previous five years.
Although Times editors cite those statistics in trying to explain why the paper did not take a hard look at the LAPD before the King beating, there were other indications that use of force by LAPD officers might be increasing. Bill Boyarsky, a Times columnist and former chief of the paper’s city-county bureau, offers another explanation for the reluctance of The Times and other local media to take on the LAPD.
Boyarsky believes that Chiefs Ed Davis and Gates intimidated the media by complaining so much to the media and about the media that newspaper editors and television news directors began to “pull back . . . (to) really bend over backward to be ‘fair’ to the LAPD.”
Boyarsky’s comments echo the sentiments of many others interviewed for this story, but Turner of The Times--although acknowledging that Gates tried to intimidate The Times--joins other local journalists in insisting that they were not intimidated.
Regardless, Gates frequently attacked the media--and seemed to enjoy seeing them wince. A warm, charming man in private, he has become increasingly hostile toward the media--and increasingly defensive of his department--and many in the community blame him for the urban war footing and the “us vs. them” mentality that seemed to intensify in the LAPD.
Gates, critics say, extended the militaristic approach to policing originally introduced by his mentor, Chief William H. Parker. He approved neighborhood barricades and battering rams mounted on armored military vehicles. He instituted programs with names such as SWAT and CRASH and Operation Hammer. He made insensitive comments about blacks and Latinos. He suggested that casual drug users “ought to be taken out and shot.”
Intentional or not, the troops got the message: They were “going to war with segments of the community,” in the words of former Police Chief Tom Reddin.
“The attitudes and the statements and the actions of the individual on top have a tendency to trickle down through the organization to the man working the street,” Reddin says.
Critics say the media--along with Gates and the city’s voters and political leaders--ultimately share the blame for police behavior in Los Angeles.
For years, the LAPD has been understaffed for the huge population and geographic sprawl of the city. The LAPD has the lowest ratio of officers to residents of the six largest police forces in the country, with fewer than one-third the number of officers in the New York Police Department. Budgetary restraints imposed by the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 exacerbated the situation.
The Times published one story in 1981 questioning whether more police automatically meant less crime, but there was little media examination of the issue beyond that. Only after the King beating and especially after the riots--when the LAPD was, as Gates put it, “overwhelmed” in the early stages of the violence--did the media pay serious attention to the question of LAPD understaffing and how that “added to the combustibility” on the streets of Los Angeles when the riots broke out, in the words of U.S. Atty. Gen. William P. Barr.
Moreover, even though many law enforcement authorities have long insisted that there is a correlation between the size of a police department and its ability to control crime, the City Council was long unwilling to risk the wrath of voters by raising taxes to significantly increase the size of the force.
In 1981 and again in 1985, voters were asked to approve such taxes. Despite polls that showed crime was by far the greatest concern of city voters, they rejected both measures by large margins, just as they would later reject two bond measures that would have financed modernization of the LAPD radio communications system.
Joseph Wambaugh, the novelist and former LAPD sergeant, says that in exchange for the “unbelievable bargain” of policing the city effectively with so few men, leaders and voters in Los Angeles have “sort of given these people . . . a certain amount of latitude . . . (to be) very aggressive, paramilitary . . . stopping crime before it happens.”
People want that job done, “and they don’t want to hear about the dirty side of it,” Wambaugh says. “This is the deal the city made and now the city’s crying about it.”
In effect, it could be said that the jury in the trial of the four officers accused of beating King ratified that “deal,” determining that police are justified in using whatever force they deem necessary to enforce the law and protect themselves in what one juror called their “lowdown, dirty job.”
Many people interviewed for this story echoed Wambaugh’s comments. Most blacks, weary of gang and drug violence in their neighborhoods, also acquiesced in this unspoken pact, even though they were often its victims. Thus, there was not much protest when police erected barricades and created de facto demilitarized zones in residential neighborhoods in an effort to discourage drug dealers and other crime.
“Let the police do it, and if they’re going to do it, we’ll let them do what they want to; (just) keep it out of my back yard” was the attitude of many blacks, says Kenneth Thomas, publisher of the Sentinel, the city’s largest black newspaper.
When city officials finally increased the size of the force by almost 20% between 1988 and 1991, they may have brought in too many new officers too soon for the training that was available. Almost 40% of LAPD patrol officers have three years experience or less, and training officers are also far less experienced than before.
Might these conditions have contributed to the King beating? Chief Gates and former Chief Davis believe that is possible. But just as the media did not examine the possible “deal” between the city, its citizens and the police, so the media did not examine the potential problems of training and inexperience--not until after the King beating.
Although the LAPD remains one of the smallest big-city police forces in the United States, “politicians and the media and everybody says: ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute. We want a kinder, gentler police force,”’ Wambaugh says.
“You can get it--easy,” he says, “but you gotta pay for it. . . . Double the Police Department. . . . You can have . . . cops going around with carnations in their lapels and hugging people.”
Hugging has never been in the curriculum at the LAPD training academy. Dating back at least to Chief Parker’s introduction of proactive policing measures in the early 1950s, the LAPD has had a reputation for an aggressive, confrontational approach to law enforcement, in everything from jaywalking to political demonstrations.
As the Christopher Commission reported last summer, the LAPD rewards officers for being “hard-nosed,” and that has created a siege mentality that isolates the department from the community. “Too many LAPD patrol officers view citizens with resentment and hostility,” the commission said. “Too many treat the public with rudeness and disrespect.”
But no mainstream Los Angeles media examined this practice of aggressive, confrontational policing and its effect on the community before the King beating. Nor did the local media ask whether the LAPD’s policy of proactive policing was effective--a debatable proposition given Los Angeles’ escalating crime rate--even though editors were aware--as former Times Editor Thomas acknowledges--that “the cops here are more rigorous than they are in other places; they’re more military . . . They’re less human in their dealings with people.”
Violent streets and violent police were not unique to Los Angeles in the late 1980s. In Dallas, however, the Morning News decided to examine the problem. Morning News reporters spent two years investigating the “abuse of authority” by police in Texas, and last year the paper published a 17-part series, spread over nine months, documenting that police in that state had been “investigated and prosecuted more frequently for beatings, torture, coerced confessions, rapes and needless deaths than police in any other state.”
The Morning News was awarded a Pulitzer Prize last month for that series. Michael Gartner, chairman of the Pulitzer Prize board said: “One thing that impressed the board was that it began before Rodney King.”
Similarly, when police misconduct problems occurred in Philadelphia in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Philadelphia Inquirer provided exhaustive investigative coverage, which triggered large-scale police reform and won the Inquirer two Pulitzer Prizes.
Critics insist that a major examination by the Los Angeles media in the late 1980s might have forced city officials to take action--and might have prevented the King beating (and, by implication, the riots triggered by the not guilty verdicts in the trial).
Jesse A. Brewer, a former LAPD assistant chief and now a member of the Police Commission, says thorough media coverage of police misconduct here “probably would have put more pressure not only on the Police Department but perhaps on elected officials.”
That may be wishful thinking.
Violent crime in Los Angeles increased at more than twice the national average between 1960 and 1989, and residents had grown so worried about gangs and violence by the mid-1980s that political leaders were frightened to challenge Gates or the LAPD for fear of facing defeat in the next election. Chief Gates had strong support in most areas of the city, and he and the police union were formidable political forces. The Police Commission, once a genuine watchdog of the LAPD, seemed little more than a toothless puppy by the mid-1980s.
“A lot of institutions in this community have failed to do their job,” says Stephen Reinhardt, former president of the Police Commission and now a judge on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The media, Reinhardt says, are “one of those institutions.”
The media, of course, do not have to worry about running for reelection; that is a major reason the best media in this country have traditionally been expected to give careful scrutiny to the powerful, otherwise untouchable institutions and individuals in our society--including police chiefs and police departments, as well as presidents, governors and captains of industry.
Freed, The Times reporter who wrote about the LAPD Special Investigations Section, says he is “a firm believer in the journalist as quasi-public servant and the notion of the newspaper as watchdog.
“But I’d bark and nobody would listen.”
Freed says he found himself so frustrated by the “phenomenally apathetic” community and the general lack of political reaction to his stories on police misconduct that he “couldn’t wait to get away from that assignment.”
A few months after he did so, King and his Hyundai led LAPD and Highway Patrol officers on a high-speed chase and a rendezvous with George Holliday’s video camera--a rendezvous that led to the deadliest urban riots in this country in more than a century.
Peter Johnson of The Times editorial library assisted with the research for this series.
Covering the Police--a Job That Puts Media on the Spot
There is a long history of accusations against the LAPD of brutality and racism, and often the media can be found in the middle. Residents say officer misconduct goes underreported; police say it is exaggerated. But the direction, generally, has been toward closer scrutiny of the LAPD. Slack reporting on the Eulia Love case, for instance, helped prompt stronger police coverage. But many say no large news organization looked hard enough at use of excessive force by officers in the 1980s.
The Growing Problem
Stories and some statistics in the late 1980s suggested that the use of force by LAPD officers was a growing problem, especially in minority communities. Although the mainstream media covered individual incidents like those depicted here, the offered no systematic examination of the issue.
Excessive Force and Its Cost
Allegations of excessive force make up the largest percentage of complaints filed against the LAPD... Excessive force: 24.7% Discourtesy: 18.5% Neglect of duty: 15.7% Improper tactics: 14.5% Unbecoming conduct: 12.2% Miscellaneous: 7.0% Dishonesty: 2.8% False imprisonment: 1.9% Other: 2.7%
Source: Report of ther Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department (Christopher Commission)
... and the number of such complaints nearly doubled between 1983 and 1988. ’83: 147 ’88: 293 ’90: 172
As a result, the city of Los Angeles is paying ever-higher amounts in settlements, judgments and awards for related litigation. 1980: $891,000 1985: $2,049,087 1990: $9,089,676 1991: $14,658,075
Source: L.A. city attorney’s office
The Pattern of Force
In the wake of the beating of Rodney G. King, an independent commission found a pattern of brutality in the Los Angeles Police Department. Some of the findings:
COMPLAINTS AGAINST LAPD OFFICERS
* Between 1986 and 1990, complaints of improper tactics or excessive force were brought against 1,800 officers. Of those, 1,400 had only one or two allegations made against them.
* Of the remaining 400 officers, 183 had four or more allegations made; 44 had six or more, 16 had eight or more and one officer had 16 complaints lodged against him.
* The upper 10% of officers ranked by excessive force allegations accounted for more than 27% of all complaints against LAPD officers.
LAPD OFFICERS INVOLVED IN USE-OF-FORCE REPORTS
* Nearly 6,000 officers were counted in use-of-force reports between 1987 and 1991. Two-thirds, or 4,000 officers, were involved in fewer than five incidents where force was used.
* Sixty-three officers had 20 or more reports each. The upper 5% of officers ranked by number of reports accounted for 20% of all reports, while 10% accounted for nearly a third (30%) of all reported incidents where force was used.
* Note: A use-of-force report must be completed whenever an officer uses force greater than a “firm grip” on a suspect.
Source: Report of the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department (Christopher Commission)