O.C. Chiefs Say Case Was an Eye-Opener
Orange County’s highest-ranking police officers said Saturday that the beating of Rodney G. King has caused unparalleled soul-searching within local law enforcement and helped foster policy changes to prevent police brutality and improve community relations.
Reacting to the King verdicts, ranking officers contend that the sensational case with its graphic videotape has triggered a widespread reappraisal of police tactics on a scale that can be compared to the national outcry over the Vietnam War.
“In Vietnam, it was the first time people saw such violence and I think that this, the King case, also has that,” said Fullerton Police Chief Patrick McKinley, who recently came to the city after 29 years as a Los Angeles police officer. “This showed the worst-case scenario for everyone to see, and people said this isn’t what happens on ‘Adam 12.’ ”
For law enforcement in general, McKinley said the case has meant: “Hey, we’ve got to do some training, we have to provide appropriate tools for officers on the streets and we need to go on.”
King was severely beaten and arrested by Los Angeles police the night of March 3, 1991, after a high-speed pursuit. The incident, partially captured on eight minutes of videotape by an amateur cameraman, gained international notoriety.
In April, 1992, a Superior Court jury in Simi Valley acquitted Sgt. Stacey C. Koon and Officers Laurence M. Powell, Theodore J. Briseno and Timothy E. Wind on state charges of assault.
On Saturday, a federal jury in Los Angeles convicted Koon and Powell of violating King’s civil rights after six weeks of trial and more than 40 hours of deliberations. Briseno and Wind were acquitted.
Some Orange County police chiefs said the case has reinforced their belief that the justice system works, but they declined to comment on the officers involved. Most reiterated their concerns that the public not judge the police based on one or two incidents or the actions of another law-enforcement agency.
Virtually all of those interviewed by The Times on Saturday said their departments have undertaken some type of policy review related to use of force, community relations, training or preparations for widespread unrest like that erupted in Los Angeles after the first King case verdicts last year.
“My general reaction is that the system works,” said La Palma Police Chief David Barr. “The system has run its course and the verdict stands whether we like it or dislike it.”
Particularly critical of the two convicted officers was Laguna Beach Police Chief Neil J. Purcell Jr., who said that Officer Powell was “totally out of control” and that Sgt. Koon failed to take command of the scene.
“I believe the verdicts were very fair and appropriate,” Purcell said. “It was my professional opinion based on the totality of the circumstances that (the beating) was clearly an inappropriate and excessive use of force by the officers.”
McKinley said he particularly supported the conviction of Koon, the supervisor at the scene, and the acquittal of Wind because he was a younger officer with very little experience. While not excusing what happened, he said he hoped the case will help the public comprehend how frightening and dangerous it can get on the street for police officers.
“No. 1, what I think people understand now is just because you put a 22-year-old kid in a uniform (doesn’t mean) he won’t be afraid,” McKinley said. “I think what this case brought out is that when officers were frightened of the size and demeanor of the opponent, and several of them are hitting him with batons all at once, that’s where proper supervision comes in and that’s what I hoped the sergeant (Koon) would have done.”
Though they thought the King beating was an isolated incident, Orange County peace officers said the inflammatory videotape of officers hitting King repeatedly with their nightsticks has at times unfairly cast a poor light on law enforcement as a whole.
“I think the trials really focused needlessly on the negative side of police. It was an isolated incident,” said Irvine Police Chief Charles S. Brobeck. “I hope from this point on we can portray a positive side to police because we do a lot of good things.”
But Santa Ana Police Chief Paul M. Walters downplayed the impact of the King case on the relationship between his department, one of the largest in the county, and residents of the city, one of the most diverse, with a population that is 65% Latino, 23% Anglo and 10% Asian.
“I think people have to recognize that one incident does not make a relationship between the police and a community. It really is made up of the day-to-day contacts and response,” Walters said. “I know there was never ever a hint of what happened in Los Angeles reflected in our department.”
Though Orange County law enforcement agencies have had their share of brutality cases, none of them have attained the notoriety or social significance of the King beating. Nevertheless, local department heads say they have tried to learn from the incident and take steps to minimize the chance of such an occurrence in Orange County.
Videotapes of the Los Angeles officers beating King have been circulated in local departments for training purposes, and policies have been reviewed related to riot control, use of force and community relations. Some departments are installing or have plans to mount expensive video cameras in at least a few patrol cars to help document arrests and confrontations with police. Santa Ana also has sent its own police camera crews to crime scenes and to situations with the potential for violence.
“I think (the videotaped beating) made us look at everything we do, consider how everything we do is seen by the community we service,” Chief Barr said. “I think that introspection has got to be constant and ongoing.”
At a minimum, the King beating “made all conscientious officers stop and ponder their actions and maybe take a look at the profession,” said Newport Beach Acting Police Chief Jim Jacobs.
One of the major problems local police chiefs addressed after last April’s riots was the lack of preparation by law enforcement for the widespread unrest that caught Los Angeles police off guard.
“This year there there have been numerous meetings and thousands of hours of training in anticipation of this trial,” said Orange Police Chief John R. Robertson. “If police departments learned anything, it is that it’s not worth not being prepared.”
On a broader scale, local law enforcement agencies have tried to deal with the changing demographics of Orange County and their relation to law enforcement.
The county now has some of the same problems as neighboring Los Angeles, only to a smaller degree. It is becoming increasingly urbanized and diversified racially and culturally. Violent crime is on the rise, and the gap between rich and poor has widened with some of the worst unemployment in decades.
Since 1980, the population of Orange County has grown 25%, according to 1990 U.S. census data. Sociologists say that the increase, largely fueled by Asian and Latino immigration, creates the risk of alienation and isolation among the newcomers if traditional political institutions do not address to their needs.
In response, local police have tried to develop better community relations programs and interagency cooperation. Santa Ana police, for example, have begun using liaisons to keep in touch with community groups and various neighborhoods.
In Orange, police have taken numerous steps toward revitalizing Neighborhood Watch programs and implementing foot and bike patrols in certain areas of the city. Also, under a new organizational plan, detectives are assigned to certain neighborhoods so they can become more familiar with the people and problems there.
“I think people are demanding more answers to questions,” Chief Robertson said. . . . “Neighborhood meetings are better attended than they used to be, and people help educate the department as to what the real concerns are.”
Times staff writer Thuan Le and correspondents Shelby Grad and Geoff Boucher contributed to this report.