In all his 17 years on the Howard County police force, Sgt. Samuel Chayt has never seen anything "even one-tenth" the equal of the beating, captured on videotape, that white Los Angeles police administered to a black motorist March 3.
"It was unbelievable," he said with apparent astonishment. "That many people standing around, and nobody stopped it."
Brian Cwalina, a plainclothes officer in Baltimore County who spent three years doing internal investigations, called it "obscene."
"It looked like a shark-feeding frenzy," he said. "You look at that film, you see the cars circling to put more light on him, it was obscene."
Dennis Anderson, a 25-year veteran of the Baltimore County department, was "ashamed to see guys with a badge and a gun doing that."
"It's taken us years to build our image so people don't see us all as sitting around on parking lots drinking coffee and being on the take," he fretted. "Now, this gives police nationwide a black eye."
Police officers in jurisdictions throughout the metropolitan area responded with anger and dismay last week to the shadowy scenes of three police officers repeatedly drubbing a handcuffed, defenseless suspect with nightsticks.
Almost uniformly, they cautioned that they did not know what had happened prior to the beating, but they quickly added that it was inexcusable in any case. The radio messages that followed, joking about a "big-time use of force," only made matters worse, they said.
"It makes everybody sick," said Sgt. Tim Branning, a shift supervisor on the Howard County police force. "Not just the brutality, but the stupidity to get on the radio and joke about it. They were off somewhere. They weren't even in the ballpark."
They also fear that increased public sensitivity to the use of force could lead to pressure on them to show even more restraint during normal operations.
"They're looking at us hard and close to begin with," said Thomas Marello, another Howard County officer. "Now, any time anyone of us is involved in something that includes the use of force that is warranted, they're going to look at us even more closely."
The public doesn't understand sufficiently that sometimes an arrest can get out of hand and that the use of force is legal and necessary, said Officer Cwalina.
"There are no rules in a street fight," he said. "The public looks at what's fair, one on one, two on one. But we look at it as how many officers it takes to control a situation. You got some guy high on PCP, it takes more than one officer. But once you've got someone cuffed and under control, it's over, you step back."
That is not to say that police in metropolitan jurisdictions haven't been accused of brutality themselves.
Two Southwestern District officers on the city police force were convicted in 1988 of beating a man they arrested after he punched another officer. A third officer was acquitted in the case.
Last year the state chapter of the NAACP cited the Baltimore city force as having the worst police department in Maryland, noting that three people had been killed by city police during 1990 and that an official of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People had allegedly been assaulted by an officer. The organization also gave Howard County police its 1990 "Dirty Harry" award for what it said had been excessive police violence.
Last week Jean Creek, president of the Anne Arundel County chapter of the NAACP, called for a federal investigation of more than two dozen police brutality complaints filed during the past three years. They included the police shooting of a pregnant woman during a drug raid in Pioneer City and the case of an Odenton man who charged last week that officers used excessive force during a raid of his house.
Most officers conceded that they could lose their temper as well as anyone else, but they insisted that the Los Angeles incident went far beyond normal anger.
"You see these things happen," said Myron McClain, who has worked in Baltimore's Eastern District for seven years. "But as long as you're doing what's right, doing your job, you're going to be OK."
But they also told of scratching and fighting with drunks who want to take them on but who later complain of police brutality.
"I had some drunk, 2 o'clock in the morning, in the median strip of Route 100, he'd been arrested three times before, and he wasn't going back to jail, and he was swinging at me and calling his partner to come help," recounted Officer Charles Brown of Anne Arundel County.
Others argued that many complaints were unfounded.
"I've investigated cases where people just flat lied, they made up stories," said Sergeant Chayt. "I've seen guys in the lockup working on wounds to make them look worse."
In most cases, officers say, others will step in to ease a confrontation.