The Shame of Los Angeles

March 15, 1991

Los Angeles police officers viciously beating a speeder they pulled from his car is not simply a local story. Every television station in the nation (if not the world) has played the tape of this brutal event; millions have seen it. For another, police misbehavior of this sort occurs in so many communities so often that it is a phenomena demanding national attention and national solutions.

Some say that such episodes in any city are an "aberration." That is how LAPD Police Chief Daryl Gates described the sickening incident.

Yet charges of 8,000 similar incidents are reported to the U.S. Justice Department every year. Not all such charges hold up, but neither are all such incidents reported. Yet this behavior is less of an aberration in Los Angeles than elsewhere. If this event had taken place here, we and most Baltimoreans would have considered it rogue cops on a rampage. Nearly two-thirds of Los Angelenos polled say they believe acts of police brutality are common there.

The tragedy of Los Angeles is that its police department behaves this way 20 years after several national studies pinpointed police abuse of minorities as a major cause of racial tensions and riots. Most departments responded well -- special training, community out-reach and recruitment of minorities. But it hasn't been enough, as is shown by this incident (involving a black victim and white officers), the Department of Justice's complaint files and the files of the Baltimore-based National Institute Against Prejudice and Violence.

A Los Angeles County grand jury is investigating the highly publicized beating. So is the FBI. Between them, they should produce justice for the victim and a change in the way the LAPD operates. A House of Representatives committee is planning to look into the question of police brutality in general. That's a good idea, but we would suggest that they take the time to do a thorough job. Lay the groundwork. Beginning hearings this month, as some propose, will capitalize on the heightened public interest the Los Angeles tape has produced, but it will also mean the investigation cannot be as thorough as is needed.

"I will enforce the law courteously and appropriately without fear or favor, malice or ill will, never employing unnecessary force or violence," says the Law Enforcement Code of Ethics. The overwhelming majority of police officers, even in adrenalin-pumping encounters with people believed to be dangerous, abides by this code every day. They support whatever steps can be taken to stop the sort of shameful brutality displayed by the LAPD.

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