The beating of Rodney G. King in Los Angeles -- captured for posterity on what Evening Sun TV critic Michael Hill calls "America's ugliest home video" -- wasn't the first police beating recorded by camera. Four years ago, for instance, the unblinking eye of a Baltimore television news camera caught a scene that even the photographer didn't notice until he later viewed the tape on a monitor.
Charles Stroble, the photographer, was dispatched to a street in southwest Baltimore shortly after 3 p.m. July 9, 1987. There was a report of an "officer down." Southwestern District Officer Roy Neal Grant had sustained a terrible head injury while trying to stop a fight between two women. The boyfriend of one of the women struck Grant in the face. The officer fell back and banged his head against the bumper of a parked car.
By the time Stroble arrived with his camera, other officers had subdued the boyfriend, later identified as 18-year-old Gregory Neptune, wrestled him down in the rear of a house on Wilkens Avenue and handcuffed him. Stroble shot that scene, as well as police leading a bloodied Neptune away.
Later, preparing the tape for broadcast, Stroble saw something he hadn't noticed before. While Neptune was on the ground behind the house on Wilkens Avenue, one of the officers had kicked him. At least once.
And in the face.
Few who saw that tape would forget it: a law enforcement officer's black shoe kicking the face of a young man lying at the feet of several other officers. It was brief but dramatic. It made you pity the wrong person. In fact, until I went back to look at the files, I had forgotten completely about the serious head injury to Officer Grant. The video of the cop's foot against the punk's face overwhelmed the rest of the story.
There was an investigation by the Baltimore state's attorney's office, during which it was learned that Neptune had been beaten a second and third time after being taken to Southwestern District. Three officers were indicted, charged with assault.
Their brethren came to their defense. "We believe the officers used reasonable force in effecting the arrest and I personally have problems with Monday morning quarterbacks judging police without first walking in their shoes," said an attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police.
Two of the cops were convicted. They both left the force.
Compared with the beating of Rodney King, the Neptune incident was a blip on the news scene. The reasons are simple.
The King video shows a repeated beating of a suspect surrounded by a large group of police officers. The Neptune video showed only one, perhaps two, kicks out of what were a series of attacks on the suspect -- one behind the Wilkens Avenue house, another outside the police station, another inside the police station. The camera was not present for the latter two beatings.
The King incident is racially charged. The Neptune incident was not.
The recent history of the Los Angeles Police Department includes tension between it and the minority communities of Los Angeles, questionable investigative tactics and an increased rate of citizen complaints against officers. At the time of the Neptune incident, the Baltimore Police Department was not a focus of persistent controversy or complaint, like its Los Angeles counterpart, and could not be accused of having alienated any of its constituencies. If anything, the investigation of the Neptune case, and the trial that followed, probably bolstered public confidence in the Baltimore police force and the state's attorney's office.
But a cynic asks: Would the Neptune beating have been investigated had it not been videotaped?
At the time of the indictment, Stuart Simms, the city state's attorney, said the strongest evidence of assault on Neptune was not the videotape but testimony about the two beatings at the police district, which occurred out of camera range. So maybe the Neptune case would have been investigated, videotape or not.
Still, we'll never know what would have happened to Neptune's complaint had that videotape -- and its repeated airing on local TV -- not captured the public attention for a few days.
What do you think would have happened to Rodney King without videotape?
What do you think would have happened had this parolee shown up, bloody and swollen-faced, at a Los Angeles precinct to claim that several cops had beaten him repeatedly with nightsticks?
I say nothing would have happened. How do I know? Call it a hunch.