Broadcast repeatedly around the world, the brutal videotaped assault by white Los Angeles cops on Rodney King, the black motorist, is becoming one of the most infamous police stories of the century.
The beating has not just focused intense pressure on the Los Angeles Police Department and how it was operated under Chief Daryl Gates. It's touched our national conscience and opened up floodgates of questioning of police tactics. There's hope that tougher standards and expectations will be established by police departments across 50 states.
Yet it's in New York, not Los Angeles, that the most important police change of 1991 is gathering steam. It's not targeted on police brutality -- though New York has experienced some grisly incidents, among them the February choking death of a car-theft suspect after five cops cornered him in Queens.
New York's new experiment is called ''community policing'' -- getting cops out of headquarters and patrol cars, and much closer to the population with the assignment to get to know neighborhoods.
Its champion is Lee Brown, a police chief about as different from Daryl Gates as you can get. Mr. Gates talks tough, demonizes those he sees as criminals and riffraff. He sends a wrong message to cops who could get the idea they're in a ''war'' against the people they are supposed to serve.
Lee Brown, by contrast, almost never raises his voice. Yet year-in, year-out, first in Atlanta, then in Houston, now in New York, he's been repeating a basic message: The police must be both servants of, and part of, the community.
While Mr. Gates used community policing as an experiment in isolated areas of the city, Mr. Brown developed a plan to make it the department-wide philosophy in Houston. And now, despite the dire budget pressures New York is suffering, he has gained approval to institute community policing across the entire force by the mid-1990s.
Under the Brown plan, approved by the New York Legislature in February, the New York Police Department will expand its current personnel level of 26,809 to a record total of 31,400. The number of officers available for specific neighborhood duty will rise from 750 community-patrol officers to 21,000 officers, supervisors and detectives available for neighborhood policing.
All the uniformed officers will be assigned a specific territory of several blocks or more. They will collect intelligence on emerging problems such as drug dealing and will be instructed to act like community organizers and advocates and come up with creative solutions. Non-emergency 911 calls will be diverted to the precinct officers who best know a given neighborhood.
From a preoccupation with high-tech ''rapid response'' to reported crime, New York's focus will switch to crime prevention.
It's hard to imagine a more revolutionary change -- taking a semi-military ''command and control'' police structure like the Big Apple's and telling it to decentralize and take its cues from community needs, not orders from central. One has to remain a tad cynical about how fully or enthusiastically New York's rock-ribbed police bureaucracy and heavily unionized police cadres will respond.
But you have to give Mr. Brown credit. Barely a year after becoming police commissioner, he's sold both the city administration and the state legislature on a far-reaching and quite expensive reform plan. To pay for it, there'll be a surcharge on the city income tax, a property-tax hike and a new instant lottery. The legislature placed a condition on the new taxes: They continue only if the city keeps adding its new community cops on schedule.
Today there are efforts in community policing in localities ranging from San Diego to Baltimore County, Newport News to Tulsa, Flint to Sacramento and Charleston to Aurora, Colorado. Interest in community policing appears to have accelerated nationwide in the last year.
Chief Brown takes heart in all the new experiments but insists: Community policing must not be an experimental program for part of a city, it must ''become the dominant philosophy throughout the department.'' That will require all sorts of changes. Training of officers, for example, will have to focus on skills of negotiation, mediation, communicating with neighborhood people and forging partnerships with residents and businesses.
That's a massive change. But if it works in New York -- and the jury will be out on full results at least until the late '90s -- then the likelihood of abuse of citizens by policemen, even under provocation, ought to drop dramatically.
The quashing of brutality is just one potential benefit. Other payoffs -- prevention of crime, undergirding of community, reduction of fear -- are so immense that it's a shame there aren't 1,000 Lee Browns out fighting the community-policing battle, city by city, across the U.S.
Neil R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.