<i> Jim Newton is a Times staff writer. He covered the Los Angeles Police Department and federal law enforcement from 1993 to 1997 and now reports on Mayor Richard Riordan and City Hall</i>

In a city regularly riveted by its trials of the century, no two ever mattered more than the state and federal prosecutions of the officers who beat Rodney King on March 3, 1991. The King beating and its staggering aftermath cost Los Angeles scores of lives and more than $900 million in property losses. Its longtime mayor and rival police chief were shown the door. And the city itself saw its glib self-confidence sizzle. It’s hard to be smug when your neighbor burns down your liquor store.

Until now, no book has captured those years of confusion, fear and anger--and the slow, clumsy rebirth that followed as the LAPD lurched from crisis to torpor and finally to what passes for stability. Now, at long last, Lou Cannon, whose work for the Washington Post places him in the top tier of American journalism, weighs in with his history, “Official Negligence: How Rodney King and the Riots Changed Los Angeles and the LAPD.” It is the definitive work of modern Los Angeles, a massive effort to see the nation’s most dynamic city at its most important crossroads.

Cannon advances a thesis that defines the period: Los Angeles, he powerfully demonstrates, was failed by its Police Department and its government. The LAPD’s training and traditions alienated it from its city and let down its own officers, for whom Cannon has great sympathy. City leaders, meanwhile, nursed grudges and stroked egos rather than cooperating in a way that might have saved the city from the worst riots of modern times.


Cannon’s book is not a blockbuster built on scoops. Much of the landscape he covers has been widely reported and discussed. The description of the editing of the Rodney King beating tape--the omission of scenes that tended to favor the officers--will strike some readers as shocking. But that story, though rarely told so clearly, has long been widely known among those close to the King case.

Instead, where Cannon makes his mark is where he always has: with command of detail and with thoughtful, analytical storytelling. In this case, the story is nothing less than the story of Los Angeles. And because Los Angeles is in many ways America’s bellwether, Cannon’s reflections on the city’s recent past are powerful warnings to those contemplating the nation’s future.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I was prominent among the hundreds of people Cannon interviewed while researching “Official Negligence,” having been one of the principal reporters on these topics for The Times. Neither my proximity to these events, however, nor my admiration for Cannon gives me a stake in the success of his book. I read it with interest--but not a rooting interest.

Cannon sets the stage with a thorough look at the city’s economic decline in the early 1990s--propelled in part by the collapse of the local aerospace industry--and the racial tensions it exposed. Poverty and inequality raised the city’s temperature. Then came the confrontations. And here, Cannon’s narrative takes off.

Particularly compelling is the examination of the murder of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old high school freshman shot to death in a tussle at the Empire Liquor Market Deli in South-Central. Harlins and Soon Ja Du, who was working behind the counter that Saturday morning, argued after Du accused the young girl of trying to steal a plastic container of orange juice. Harlins struck Du, put the container on the counter and turned to leave. Du shot her in the back of the head.

That was 13 days after the beating of Rodney King. The two cases would become deeply tangled in the city’s history.


“Empire Liquor . . . is 36 miles southeast and a light year away from the suburban neighborhood where the pursuit of Rodney King ended. But for African Americans in Los Angeles, these two unrelated incidents would become intertwined, reinforcing the perception that blacks could not obtain justice even when irrefutable evidence showed that they had been victimized,” Cannon writes.

While the King beating symbolized for many a history of racial abuse by the LAPD, the Harlins shooting crystallized brittle relations between Koreans and blacks in South Los Angeles. Cannon addresses those topics with candor and courage, refusing to shirk from racially charged topics as he wades through the history of a city replete with real and false accusations of racism.

Tense from the start, the Harlins case erupted when Superior Court Judge Joyce Karlin sentenced Du to probation for a killing that the jury had concluded was intentional. Despite his cool tone, Cannon’s rejection of that decision is clear. “A verdict of voluntary manslaughter required a finding that Du had intended to kill,” Cannon writes. “Judge Karlin’s contribution to victim blaming was that she based her sentence on a premise that the jury had explicitly rejected.”

Cannon is similarly sharp on the details of the King trials, and his analysis of the LAPD’s failed response to the 1992 riots searingly recreates the command breakdowns that paralyzed the police and failed residents. For those tempted to forget the LAPD’s behavior in that crisis, Cannon’s reminder is a bracing one: The LAPD, long considered an aggressive bulwark against crime, melted into a hapless panic in the early hours of the riots. Top staffers refused to act; Chief Daryl F. Gates ducked out to a fund-raiser in Brentwood. Radios broke down; telephones rang unanswered. Despite the brave actions of many rank-and-file officers, the LAPD’s management betrayed the city in those hours.

When Cannon turns to the federal trial of the officers, his research is no less admirable. But here, I take issue with some of his conclusions, which reflect his support and sympathy for the officers charged with the beating.

In essence, Cannon’s case for the officers comes down to this: Sgt. Stacey C. Koon tried his best to control the King beating. Officer Laurence M. Powell was poorly trained and failed to subdue King with a few quick blows of the baton. Officer Timothy E. Wind had the unfortunate luck to be an LAPD neophyte assigned to train with Powell. And Officer Theodore J. Briseno delivered a powerful stomp to King’s neck but not powerful enough to warrant a conviction. Cannon also is bothered by the decision to force the officers to face two criminal trials, first in state and later in federal court. He blames politicians for pursuing the federal trial and makes clear that the proceeding offended his sense of double jeopardy, the constitutional protection against being twice tried for the same offense.


On that issue, however, Cannon makes short shrift of the fact that the federal prosecution followed established rules in civil rights cases, rules long debated and frequently employed. Maybe they bear revisiting, but they are the rules, and no one should know that better than police officers, whose adherence to the rule of law is an article of professional faith. (Doubt that point? Next time you’re pulled over for not wearing a seat belt, try telling the officer that you shouldn’t get a ticket because the seat belt law is an improper extension of government power.) Certainly, it is true that the federal government’s cases against Wind and Briseno were weaker, at least when it came to establishing those officers’ intent, but both were acquitted and probably with good reason.

But to argue, as Cannon does, that “there was no fair basis for charging Powell or anyone else with violating King’s civil rights” ignores the powerful and persuasive case that prosecutors mounted in that trial. In fact, Cannon’s argument--that the incident was sloppy but not illegal--is contradicted by none other than Koon himself, who testified that the incident was a picture-perfect example of policing, a “managed and controlled use of force.”

Presumably, Koon told the truth as he believed it. Admitting to innocent errors might have made a better defense, but strategic advantage at the expense of the truth is nothing but a lie. If Cannon is to be believed and Koon is innocent of a civil rights violation, then Koon is guilty of perjury, pride and stupidity.

In addition, Cannon analyzes U.S. District Judge John G. Davies’ sentencing of the officers with a far less critical touch than he gives to Karlin in the Harlins case. Both judges were confronted with defendants whom they respected--and with African American victims whose conduct offended them. Karlin stretched the facts to suit her short sentence, and Cannon catches her. Davies stretched the facts too, but Cannon lets him get away with it.

Davies’ handling of the trial itself was generally fair, thoughtful and expedient--the last a quality that would be sorely missing when O.J. Simpson arrived and forced yet another tumultuous challenge to the LAPD. But when it came to sentencing, Davies manipulated federal guidelines to suit his intention, which was to see that Koon received a short prison term.

One example of the logical contortions that Davies underwent and that Cannon fails to criticize: Davies found that the officers deserved to have years shaved off their prison terms because King was drunk, belligerent and initially resisted efforts to arrest him. All that is true, and the guidelines permit reductions in cases where victims provoke illegal conduct.


But Davies ruled that the beating turned illegal when King stopped resisting and lay still. At that point, King was not combative. He was a beaten man. The officers kept hitting him. Every blow after that was unprovoked, and the officers did not logically deserve to serve less time for those strikes. It is a fine point, but federal guidelines are built around such points, and Cannon should have held Davies to task for that. Police are expected to obey those rules scrupulously, and judges are expected to apply them fairly. In the King case, neither did.

My criticisms of Cannon’s book are serious disagreements about aspects of the federal trial but are small in the overall context of the period he has chronicled. They serve as a point of departure for debate about issues that so clearly defined this city in the 1990s and should not undermine the overall importance of what Cannon has accomplished. For the first time, an author has soberly and comprehensively navigated the swirl of Los Angeles through these years of turbulence. “Official Negligence” is a vital contribution to the city’s history.