The L.A. tape: 3 perspectives

Dan Rodricks

April 10, 1991|By Dan Rodricks

It might not lead to the departure of Daryl Gates as police chief of Los Angeles, but the videotaped police beating of Rodney King could have long-term effects on the cop-citizen relationship -- not just in the City of Angels, but everywhere.

Lawyers who defend cops already are worried about a surge in brutality complaints of dubious foundation. Some cops have heard warnings that their street arrests of criminal suspects will be videotaped by wary citizens.

If police officers already feel unloved and second-guessed by the people they serve, the public's reaction to the King beating -- branded into the American psyche by repeated airings of the video -- must certainly make them even more self-conscious and defensive. What are cops thinking these days?

Here are three perspectives, all from former police officers, including one who served under Daryl Gates:

Edward Mattson is a retired sergeant from Baltimore. Today, he's a "quiet, little book dealer" in Towson. While acknowledging that the King beating was appalling, Mattson thinks the video of it focused an inordinate amount of attention on police brutality. The media, he says, doesn't accord as much attention to the equally appalling, and more frequent, attacks on police.

"I am medically retired as a result of an act of brutality," Mattson wrote in a recent letter, "and at the time the article about the incident was about six lines in your newspaper. I was hit by a two-by-four by a member of the Black Panthers in 1970, at a demonstration outside the Maryland Penitentiary. This was a racially motivated act. I was affected for the rest of my life. The state's attorney chose not to prosecute for fear of arousing the black community. So much for equal."

George Bush -- not the president -- joined the Los Angeles Police Department back in 1974. He served in various capacities, on and off the street, until he resigned with the rank of sergeant in 1987. He had gone to law school at night and, after 13 years as a Los Angeles cop, decided to practice law. He took a job with a Baltimore law firm that handles the majority of local cases in which police are charged with assault.

"I don't think the tension between police and the community is any higher there [Los Angeles] than it is in any other city," Bush said. "[The King beating] was an aberration. You had a supervisor on the scene who didn't do his job, and that was uncharacteristic of what I know of the LAPD, which is run very professionally. You have very active and aggressive supervisors out there who intercept potential problems. That didn't happen.

"We all hope that each and every police officer in each and every city and county in the country would behave above how the ordinary person would behave. But that's not true. We've got bad apples everywhere. They need to be weeded out."

Bush is going back. To Los Angeles. To police work. "I loved that work," he says. "I respect that department, in spite of this incident. I'm going back with pride."

Dan Hetrick loved the work, too. He was a Baltimore cop for 10 years. But he's been away from it for 16, with no sign of going back. He quit for several reasons. One had to do with the way some colleagues treated criminal suspects.

"I'll give an example," Hetrick wrote. "On a certain occasion, I went to the assistance of an officer in trouble. Together we overpowered the suspect and had the situation under control. Then here comes a herd of cops who wanted to beat on the guy. Now I've go to protect him from the cops. And for doing this I got the ice treatment from half the shift personnel and my captain, too. I had violated their code.

"But I had a code of my own. It was this: Under color of authority, I would never knowingly pursue a course of action that might eventually jeopardize my own rights as a private citizen. A lot of people think the answer to crime and street violence is to give the police more power. And there are a lot of people, not only police officers, who don't see much wrong with police brutality if it makes the streets safe for them.

"There was a national movement toward police professionalism in the late '60s. There was genuine improvement in police conduct because the public demanded it. Of late, though, the public has been more concerned with drugs and street crime and not so much with their rights. It has sent the wrong message to some police. Around the country many police organizations have a mentality that suggests they consider themselves above the rest of us, that running afoul of them is in itself an offense. Officers are operating on the edge of the law and you can count on many to go eagerly over the edge. Call that my hunch."

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