Politics & Policy

Rodney King Redux?

Only for those who want it to be.

By now you’ve probably seen the video: Los Angeles police officers chase a man in a stolen car through the streets of South Los Angeles and Compton. Reaching a dead end, the man abandons the car and runs along the edge of a flood-control channel. He appears to give up, stopping and raising his hands, but the first officer to catch up to him tackles him to the ground. A second officer arrives and piles on, then a third runs up and appears to kick the man before striking him several times with a flashlight. The next three officers who come into the picture seem to do little more than stand and watch while the man is handcuffed.

I can’t put it any better than LAPD Chief William Bratton did on Wednesday. Speaking to a Los Angeles Times reporter by phone from Connecticut, Bratton said, “There is no denying that it looks very bad from what is seen on the video. But there should be no rush to judgment before the investigations are completed.”

Sounds perfectly reasonable, doesn’t it? No matter though, for the rush is already on, led by none other than Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn. “I don’t understand what the need for the use of the flashlight or whatever the object was by that officer at that time.” Hahn told reporters. “Certainly I’m willing to wait for that full investigation, but it looked to me to be unwarranted.” And there you have it: In the words of the Red Queen, sentence first, trial later.

In viewing the tape of the arrest, shot from a helicopter hovering several hundred feet over the scene, I don’t see any justification for the pummeling the officer with the flashlight appears to dish out. Having said that, let’s acknowledge that the officer in question had a better view of things than does someone watching a video replay on television. On the tape, it’s impossible to tell where the suspect’s hands are or where the flashlight blows are landing. Something may have occurred that warranted those blows, and no fair-minded person can rule out that possibility by merely viewing the tape. But some questions occur: If the suspect was doing something that presented a threat to this officer, why did the officers standing over him seem so unconcerned? On the other hand, if the beating was as severe as it appeared on the tape, how is it that the suspect, as has been reported, came through with no serious injuries?

These are questions that can only be answered after a thorough, unbiased investigation, and Chief Bratton has promised to deliver one. And, in addition to the LAPD’s internal-affairs investigation, the FBI and L.A. County district attorney’s office have each launched their own probes into the arrest. But how unbiased will these investigations be? I have seen political forces exerted in other, less noteworthy cases, and the political backdrop here cannot be overlooked: Mayor Hahn faces a tough reelection fight next March, and his position has been weakened by accusations of improprieties and conflicts of interest within his administration. Just last week, four of Hahn’s appointed city commissioners resigned their posts and announced they would be supporting rival candidate Bob Hertzberg in the coming election. Further complicating matters is city councilman Bernard Parks’s recent announcement that he, too, is running for mayor. Recall that in 2002 Parks was ousted from his post as chief of the LAPD and replaced by Bratton. Parks is nothing if not vindictive; Hahn publicly voiced his preference that Parks not be appointed to a second five-year term as chief, and surely Parks is exulting at the opportunity for revenge against the man who sent him packing as well as the man who replaced him. Parks has already announced his opinion that the officers used excessive force in this case. For him, too, apparently, no investigation is necessary.

For his part, Chief Bratton must walk a fine line. He is the public face of the Los Angeles Police Department, and this incident threatens to overshadow the improvements in community relations and crime reduction he has made thus far in his term as chief. But he is also the leader of a 9,000-officer force, and he has a duty to keep his people motivated. If his officers perceive that he is sacrificing one or a handful of their own for the sake of political expediency, they will no longer be eager go out on the streets and perform as he would wish. The only ones who profit from a demoralized police force are criminals, and I’m guessing that even now the predators of Los Angeles are looking to test what they may believe are new rules of engagement.

Which is just fine with the “community activists” who seem to welcome–even revel in–the controversy that surrounds such incidents as this. One of these perpetually and professionally aggrieved is Najee Ali, president of something called Project Islamic Hope. Ali invoked the inevitable yet facile comparison to the 1991 Rodney King incident. “Here we go again,” Ali told reporters. “This is Rodney King all over again.” A cynic might observe that Mr. Ali might be eager to cast discredit on the LAPD because he himself is awaiting trial and facing prison on a charge of felony hit-and-run.

The officers in this case are assigned to the LAPD’s Southeast Division, one of the city’s toughest. As of a month ago, there had been nearly 1,000 violent crimes committed this year in the ten square miles the division patrols, including 29 murders, 25 rapes, and 380 robberies. Would that those who claim to be so outraged by this incident could be just as outraged by these crimes as well.

This will be “Rodney King” only for those who wish to make it so. Among these, it seems, are the editors of the Los Angeles Times, who on Thursday chose to pair on their website the videotape of the current incident with that from the Rodney King arrest. Worse, the linked King video shows only the most inflammatory portion of the tape, this despite a report by the Times’s own ombudsman–now forgotten, apparently–that concluded media outlets shared some blame for the 1992 riots in Los Angeles because they had only shown those portions of the tape that would lead the public to believe the four accused officers were guilty of the charges against them. The portions of the tape that buttressed the officers’ defense were almost never aired.

The New York Times also, it seems, has come down with a case of Rodney King nostalgia. Recall how often King, the intoxicated, speeding, paroled armed robber, was referred to simply as “motorist Rodney King,” as though “Motorist” were his first name. Well, on the headline over a wire story on the New York Times website Thursday, there it was: “LAPD Probing Arrest, Beating of Motorist.” Perhaps the headline writer didn’t have room for “fleeing car thief,” but is it fair, or even accurate, to describe the man as a mere “motorist”?

At this early stage, perceptions of this incident are being influenced in such a way that only by seeing a cop or two fired and imprisoned will some here in Los Angeles be mollified. What will happen if, as in the Rodney King case, they are disappointed?

Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.


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