Every kick and baton blow used on Rodney G. King was reasonable and necessary to arrest him and may have protected him from more serious harm, a highly decorated Los Angeles police sergeant testified Friday in the trial of four officers accused of violating King’s civil rights.
Sgt. Charles L. Duke, a veteran officer with about 90 commendations, testified for the entire day, methodically reviewing each of the baton blows and kicks pictured on the videotape of the beating. Duke praised Officers Laurence M. Powell and Timothy E. Wind for their handling of the situation, and he said their actions may even have saved King from being killed.
“If the officers were to allow this suspect to rise . . . it could escalate into a deadly force situation,” Duke said. “The safest place for him (King), and it may be very hard to understand, is on the ground.”
Duke--a burly and articulate officer who wore a blue business suit to court because, he said, Police Department superiors ordered him not to wear his uniform--called the actions by Wind and Powell “controlled force on a suspect who has exhibited combative, aggressive behavior.”
Although Duke criticized Sgt. Stacey C. Koon for the way King ultimately was handcuffed, he testified that he believed the use of force was “handled as best as Sgt. Koon could.”
Duke was not asked about the actions of the fourth defendant, Officer Theodore J. Briseno. He previously has criticized Briseno’s use of a stomp to push King down, however, and he probably will be asked about that when questioning continues next week.
Duke’s testimony, the strongest defense of the officers that jurors have heard so far, capped a week of steady recovery for the four defendants, who face maximum sentences of 10 years in prison if convicted. Ira Salzman, the lawyer for Koon, began calling defense witnesses Tuesday, and the first day of the officers’ case was marred by damaging testimony from a Los Angeles School District police officer, Paul Beauregard.
Beauregard contributed a few small points for the defense, but admitted under cross-examination that his description of the incident to a state grand jury was contradicted in many respects by the videotape. Beauregard also said he heard Powell laughing while making a radio call for an ambulance, and he testified that he, Powell and King had joked while King lay handcuffed on the ground, bleeding and swollen.
That left some of the defense lawyers dejected, but they were crowing late Friday about their comeback.
“Beauregard was the worst moment of the case,” said Harland W. Braun, who represents Briseno. “Today was the best.”
Duke, who also testified during last year’s state trial of the officers, offered federal jurors a mirror image of the prosecution’s expert on the use of force, Sgt. Mark John Conta. Conta told jurors that all four officers had violated police policy, and he sharply criticized them for failing to use a technique known as the “swarm” to pin King’s arms and legs.
Salzman’s defense of Koon has focused largely on that criticism, and he questioned Duke about it at length Friday. Duke repeatedly disagreed with Conta’s advocacy of the swarm, in part because Duke said most Los Angeles police officers never had been taught the technique at the time of King’s March 3, 1991, arrest.
“You can’t hold officers responsible for something they don’t train in because you’re going to get them killed,” he said.
Moreover, Duke added, the swarm was designed to be used against misdemeanor suspects who either had been searched or were wearing so little clothing that it was clear they could not be carrying a weapon. It would be dangerous to use against a suspect who might be carrying a weapon because it requires officers to “tangle up” with the suspect, Duke said.
Because of that, he added, the defendants would have been foolhardy to attempt to arrest King using a swarm, since King had never been searched.
“It was not intended to be used on an unsearched felony suspect,” Duke said. “The likelihood of disaster is very real.”
Duke also bolstered Salzman’s contention that a political decision made in 1982 deprived police officers of a tool that might have otherwise been used to arrest King without injuring him. Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson testified earlier this week that political leaders placed a moratorium on the “upper-body control hold,” better known as the chokehold, in 1982 despite warnings that it could result in more injuries from baton blows.
Duke said he saw an increase in injuries to suspects and officers after the chokehold was abolished, and Salzman produced a June 9, 1982, memorandum warning that batons would be used more frequently without the chokehold.
“The use of the PR 24 baton (the one used by LAPD officers) is the only alternative that provides a safe and viable method of handling situations where officers are faced with bodily attack by a suspect,” the memo states.
Although testifying for opposite sides in the case, Conta and Duke agreed that the force used by the officers was within police policy for the first 32 seconds of the videotape. During the tape’s opening sequence, King is seen charging in the direction of Powell, and both police sergeants said Powell was within policy when he struck King with his baton.
They also agreed that a flurry of subsequent blows by Powell and Wind were not policy violations because King appeared to be lifting himself off the ground.
But after 32 seconds, King never again rises above his knees, and Conta said that officers then should have handcuffed their suspect and ended the incident. Duke disagreed, and he pointed to several moments on the tape where King can be seen moving a leg or arm, movements that he said could reasonably have been interpreted by the officers as attempts to get up.
At one point, Duke demonstrated the movements in the courtroom, leaping from the floor and charging toward the jury box. Two jurors in the front row jerked their heads back in surprise.
“They have the right to construe that as aggressive or combative behavior,” he said. “So they have the right to use force even though they are not actually being attacked.”
In testifying, Duke also was allowed to relay a conversation he said he had with Koon.
According to Duke, Koon said he had ordered his officers to use batons to subdue King after King shrugged off the effects of an electrical device known as a Taser. Koon also allegedly told Duke that all of the blows were used to try to force King to lie down on the pavement and that the beating halted as soon as King put his hands behind his head and said: “Please stop.”
Assistant U.S. Atty. Steven D. Clymer vigorously objected to Duke being allowed to tell Koon’s version of the story.
“It’s a self-serving, after-the-fact statement by a criminal defendant,” Clymer said.
U.S. District Judge John G. Davies disagreed, and allowed Duke to relate the conversation.