Beating by LAPD Officer Airs on TV
The televised beating of a suspected car thief Wednesday by a flashlight-wielding Los Angeles Police Department officer was described by a top department official as “Rodney King-esque,” drawing comparisons with the 1991 beating of an African American man by LAPD officers that led to catastrophic riots a year later.
Television news crews in helicopters recorded the early morning car chase that ended in Compton shortly before 6 a.m. when about half a dozen LAPD officers ran after an African American man who bolted from a stolen Toyota Camry.
On the videotape, the unarmed man appears to surrender after sprinting a short distance along the concrete-lined Compton Creek channel, raising his arms and starting to crouch.
As two officers are restraining the suspected thief on the ground, a third officer is seen delivering a quick kick to the suspect and then striking him 11 times in the upper body with a flashlight. A short time after the man is handcuffed and in custody, three officers can be seen exchanging handshakes.
The LAPD and FBI have opened investigations.
The case is seen as a key test for LAPD Chief William J. Bratton, who has spent the last two years trying to improve relations with South L.A. communities, particularly African Americans, with the aim of trying to temper lingering anger and resentment over past police brutality. He and Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn promised a quick and thorough investigation.
“If, after that investigation, officers of the Los Angeles Police Department are found to have violated the law, those officers ought to be terminated. They ought to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” Hahn said at a late afternoon news conference. “The community is watching. They’ll hold us accountable. This is the test.”
DeMaria Perry, an elected member of the Watts neighborhood council, called the beating outrageous. “I don’t think I am safe with the LAPD,” said the 16-year-old African American boy. “That’s why people run. We don’t know what to expect.”
Police identified the man in the video as Stanley Miller, 36, of Compton. LAPD officers first spotted him driving north on the Harbor Freeway at Alondra Boulevard about 5:25 a.m. and chased him for about 30 minutes, mostly on surface streets.
After his arrest, Miller was treated at a hospital for what police described as scrapes. Late Wednesday, LAPD South Bureau Deputy Chief Earl Paysinger reported that Miller had said at the hospital that he had been struck in the head.
Miller has since been booked on suspicion of grand theft auto and is being held in lieu of $30,000 bail at Parker Center. He is listed on the booking report as 200 pounds and 6 feet tall, and appears to have past convictions, including for burglary and car theft.
Bratton, who was in Hartford, Conn., said the department immediately launched criminal and internal investigations.
“There is no denying that it looks very bad from what is seen on the video,” he said by telephone Wednesday morning. “But there should be no rush to judgment before the investigations are completed.”
In a departure from past incidents, the LAPD would not release the names of the officers involved, citing legal advice by the city attorney’s office. Paysinger said several officers had been assigned to their homes and would be put on administrative leave.
The three officers seen as most aggressive on the videotape are white, Paysinger said, and none are rookies.
Department policy allows officers to use any force that is “reasonable and necessary” to make an arrest or to protect the public,” said LAPD Cmdr. Eric Lillo.
Los Angeles police are allowed to use metal flashlights to strike suspects. They are supposed to use only as much force as needed to overcome resistance.
The proper use of force is determined case by case, and can take into account, for example, the level of danger posed by the suspect and whether he may be armed.
Such determinations “are very subjective, and you have to evaluate it through the cop’s eyes,” said Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney and chairwoman of an LAPD task force investigating the Rampart scandal.
Rice criticized the department for past rulings by its investigators that gave officers the widest margin possible. The LAPD would “rule that everything was in policy no matter how absurd it appeared to rational people,” she said.
Today the department should be measured, not by whether it finds these officers guilty of wrongdoing, but by whether “they are doing a rational and by-the-book investigation,” she said.
LAPD officials defended their decision to keep secret the names of the officers involved, saying legal constraints of personnel and penal codes are now more strict.
But Alonzo Wickers, an attorney specializing in 1st Amendment law, disagreed. When police use force, he said, the public has a right to know who they are. “The city has misread the law in this case,” Wickers said.
Paysinger, whose bureau includes the Southeast Division, where the officers in the incident are based, termed the video “troubling.”
He called for the public’s patience to allow the department time to investigate.
“We have built a strong relationship with the public.... We are asking the public to believe in us,” he said.
The videotape, which was broadcast throughout the day on local TV stations, looked “Rodney King-esque,” Paysinger said. But such comparisons, he said, do not take into account changes in the LAPD’s leadership and in public attitudes in the years since motorist King was beaten in 1991.
That videotaped beating was one of the most notorious cases of police brutality in American history and sparked the Los Angeles riots of 1992 after the officers involved were acquitted.
Daryl Gates, who was chief at the time, is often remembered for a defiant attitude toward community criticism, and some activists made reference to him Wednesday.
John Mack of the Los Angeles Urban League recalled that Gates “was quick to defend officers. He almost implied that Rodney King deserved it.”
Gates’ initial reaction to the King beating, however, echoed some of Bratton’s comments Wednesday. Gates called the earlier incident “shocking,” then said he would withhold judgment until an investigation had been conducted.
The King incident, which was followed by such other high-profile controversies as a furor over corruption and brutality in the LAPD’s Rampart Division, also triggered a decade of examination and reform.
The city agreed to a federal consent decree that mandated changes in officer training and systems to track officer conduct.
Paysinger, the highest-ranking African American officer in the LAPD and Bratton’s voice in South Los Angeles, has worked for two years to improve relations with former critics, particularly among African Americans.
“Chief Bratton, to his credit, has been aggressive in reaching out,” said Mack of the Urban League. “Back during Rodney King, it was all-out war; it was very antagonistic. But there has been general improvement.”
Changes in police attitudes have been matched by changes in community attitudes, said Khalid Shah of Stop the Violence/Increase the Peace.
People in South L.A. “were tired of the polarization that existed between law enforcement and the community,” he said.
But Mack, Shah and many others said Wednesday’s incident could severely test those new bonds.
Some activists were scathing in their criticism.
The incident shows that relations between blacks and the LAPD have gotten worse, not better, said Tony Muhammad, Western regional minister with the Nation of Islam. “The Gates mentality is back with Bratton,” he said.
Shah, Mack and Muhammad were among dozens of community leaders whom Paysinger assembled for a meeting at the 77th Street station to explain the department’s response.
The mayor and other city officials also attended, but the media were shut out. Many activists lingered afterward to urge calm and demand that the LAPD thoroughly investigate.
Hahn called on the department to conduct an inquiry that would “give confidence to the community that no one is above the law in Los Angeles.”
By contrast, Councilman Bernard C. Parks, former police chief and now a challenger to Hahn in next year’s mayoral race, sharply criticized the officers’ actions. He said there was an appearance of poor tactics and possible excessive force on the video.
The third officer’s kick “appears not to be appropriate,” Parks said. “And you certainly can’t justify the striking with a baton or flashlight.”
Other police officials disagreed, saying officers must do whatever the situation demands when they arrest a suspect.
The Southeast Division is one of the most dangerous in the city.
Fleeing suspects there are nearly twice as likely to be armed as in the city as a whole, according to LAPD data. About one in seven fleeing suspects there was found to be armed in 2003.
To view video of the beating, go to latimes.com/lapdvideo.
Times staff writers Doug Smith, Anna Gorman and Greg Krikorian contributed to this report.