AN AMERICAN VIEW

The enemy is us, not the L.A. police force

In our society, the typical victim of police brutality is someone belonging to a group or race that is considered to be undesirable

FRED BRUNING April 15 1991
AN AMERICAN VIEW

The enemy is us, not the L.A. police force

In our society, the typical victim of police brutality is someone belonging to a group or race that is considered to be undesirable

FRED BRUNING April 15 1991

The enemy is us, not the L.A. police force

AN AMERICAN VIEW

FRED BRUNING

In our society, the typical victim of police brutality is someone belonging to a group or race that is considered to be undesirable

Los Angeles cops pounded Rodney G. King like he was a dented fender and—what do you know?—someone was watching. On and on went the drubbing. On and on ran the video camera of citizen George Holliday, just some guy with a new toy and enough sense to point it in the right direction. Delivered to television and broadcast nationwide, Holliday’s tape provided a war-whooping populace the sort of visceral coverage lacking in the Persian Gulf. Here we saw mayhem, but from the ground up.

After last month’s billy-clubbing, officials launched a probe into the conduct of 21 white officers who either watched, or took part in, the reconfiguration of Rodney King. Critics demanded that Police Chief Daryl Gates resign and, after Mayor Tom Bradley belatedly joined the chorus, the Los Angeles Police Commission suspended Gates for 60 days. The city council unexpectedly opposed the move, however, and Gates, a civil service employee who cannot easily be fired, vowed to fight for his job in any case. What, he asks, does the bullying of one black motorist have to do with him? Complains UCLA law professor Henry McGee: “He sets the tone of arrogance that is read as an invitation to violence by the troops below.” Sufficiently alarmed by such talk, the otherwise somnolent souls at the U.S. justice department said that they would review 15,000 cases of alleged brutality—yes, 15,000—filed with Washington over the past six years. Even President Bush said that he was sickened by the throttling of King, who, as it turned out, suffered not simply the facial cuts and split lip noted on a police report, but nine skull fractures, a cracked cheekbone, a smashed eye socket and a broken leg. Such “gratuitous violence and brutality” cannot be tolerated, said the President. In the United States, if not the Middle East, we cherish human life, you understand, and must protect it at all costs. Tours through the looking glass, enter here.

Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.

From East Coast to West came stories of police abuse. Five New York City cops indicted in connection with the strangulation of a stolencar suspect. Officer in Dayton, Ohio, booted off the force upon admitting he branded a fellow with a hot iron. City of San Antonio, Tex., sued by an individual who says that his leg had to be amputated after a police thrashing. Lamented Jim Fyfe, a former cop and member of the Law Enforcement Accreditation Commission: “Overall, instead of becoming a kinder, gentler country, we’re becoming quite nasty.”

Cops say that if they have an attitude, there is good reason. In a Newsweek essay following the King episode, LAPD officer Susan Yocum condemned the behavior of offending officers, but said that decent cops face lopsided odds. Recently, she added, a colleague had been mortally wounded by a gunshot to the face while ticketing a drunk and that a slew of woes—rising crime rate, deteriorating schools, foundering families—guaranteed that Los Angeles’s mean streets would stay that way. Nothing excuses the beating of King, said Yocum. What excuses society?

Yocum is correct in suggesting a kind of cosmic give-and-take between cop and community. The officer is both part of the body politic

and an independent agent—a public employee who just happens to pack a gun, a protector of community standards who may have singular ideas as to whose community and which standards need protecting, and by what means.

Fairness is central to the police officer’s job, but what if he operates in an atmosphere steamy with certain attitudes about skin color, say, or poverty, or welfare recipients, or people with peculiar accents, or kids with stringy hair and peace pins? “The typical victim of police brutality is someone who is considered undesirable by society,” said Robert Panzarella, a professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Small wonder that America’s aggrieved parties distrust the police. The more comfortable among us may view things differently—unless, of course, we spot the flicker of revolving red lights in the rearview mirror and hear the stern command to pull over.

All hearts rattle at such moments, but why? What exactly do we fear from our dutiful highway patrolman? What terror infuses the transaction soon to follow—the presenting of licence and registration, the wait for routine radio check, the clipped lecture about speed limits exceeded, the abject appeal for clemency summarily rejected, the warning to slow down in the future, the stiff, dismissive departing nod, the final glint of dark glasses?

We cringe at authority, particularly if it is heavily armed. Imagine then the horror of Rodney G. King when, after stupidly leading cops on a high-speed chase (though not so high a speed as officers first claimed), he found himself handcuffed and face down in the gutter. Blacks say that the ensuing outrage—the kicking, the punching, the nightstick ordeal, the electric darts from a Taser gun—was remarkable only because George Holliday captured the action with his trusty Sony Minicam. Otherwise, they say, King’s experience was nothing new to underclass Angelenos.

Chief Gates says that brutality is not part of his system, and maybe he means it. In any case, Gates has a mess of explaining to do. Isn’t it odd, for instance, that backup cops on the scene—one, a sergeant—failed to halt the officers taking batting practice on King’s bones? Though local residents were nearby and even screamed their objections, the beating proceeded. Weren’t officers worried about the fallout—or did they think that the station house could square things? How are we to interpret the jaunty, post-game computer repartee between officers in patrol cars? Exulted one cop: “I haven’t beaten anyone this bad in a long time.” Responded another: “Oh, not again. Why for you do that?”

Masquerading outrageously as black street lingo, the question nevertheless was on mark. Why for you do that? If an officer were to answer, “Well, to tell you the truth, I didn’t think anyone would mind,” we could hardly duck the implications. Despite showcase advances, America remains a segmented society. Race and income are defining characteristics, not wisdom and ethics. By working over Rodney G. King, L.A. cops were merely endorsing majority rule. Police carry the nightsticks. We give the orders.