Make a Federal Case Out of It

March 22, 1991

Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley (a former police officer) says of the nation's most famous and observed police brutality case that it was "no aberration. . . . There appears to be a dangerous trend of racially motivated incidents running through at least some segments of our police department."

If L.A. Police Chief Daryl Gates were police commissioner of Baltimore and this incident and this pattern had occurred here, he would have been fired by now. Mayor Kurt Schmoke would not countenance the leadership of a police department that behaved the way the Los Angeles Police Department did. Several white officers brutally beat a black speeder, while several other white officers looked on passively, then they joked about it in radio messages sent to their watch commander and to other patrol cars. The joking is as disturbing as the beating. The officers were obviously unconcerned about being punished or ostracized for their brutality.

Obviously Mayor Bradley would prefer not to countenance Chief Gates' leadership, either. The mayor has suggested that the chief consider resigning in order to help the police department "recover from the controversy." But he has not asked the city's Police Commission to fire him. The Los Angeles city charter protects police chiefs from dismissal except in cases involving unlawful wrongdoing. That probably is not involved in this case. At the moment, it appears that all Chief Gates is guilty of is insensitivity to minorities and civil liberties and incompetence in his command and control responsibilities. The Police Commission may not even be able to discipline him for that.

State law here states explicitly that Baltimore's police commissioner can be fired for inefficiency. After the commissioner serves a fixed term, he can be replaced for no reason. That's the way it ought to be everywhere. Just as military commanders must be responsible to national political authority, so must law enforcement officials from the top down answer to local political authority.

A Los Angeles grand jury had indicted a sergeant and three of his subordinates in the incident there. That is a half-measure. If there is a pattern or "trend" of this sort of behavior, some officers at a higher level than sergeant have in the past almost surely broken federal statutes dealing with law enforcers acting under "color of law" to deprive citizens of their rights -- and others have almost surely conspired illegally to cover this up. A federal grand jury probe to see if there was such unlawful conduct over the years is needed.

This story has been getting a lot of attention worldwide. It deserves it. This is no more just a local story than were the assaults by Southern police officers on civil rights workers in the 1960s. The Justice Department must respond swiftly and assertively to demonstrate that police brutality against minorities will not be tolerated.

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