An L.A.-type beating couldn't happen here? It already has!

Gregory P. Kane

April 24, 1991|By Gregory P. Kane

JUST WHERE I picked up the notion that public officials should have something of a grip on reality is a mystery to me. Perhaps I'm just peculiar that way. But it seems that City Councilwoman Jacqueline McLean -- who has aspirations to higher public office -- may be living in denial.

McLean, in the March 30 edition of the Baltimore Afro-American, responded to a question posed by the editors of the paper: Could the Los Angeles police beating of motorist Rodney King happen in Baltimore?

"My first reaction is no," McLean chirped. "I don't think it can happen here because of the quality and caliber of ofnfinncers we have in Baltimore. After working in the district courts for 10 years, I've seen first-hand the type of police officer we have here. For this reason, I don't believe it can happen here."

Were I the charitable type, I might be inclined to give McLean the benefit of the doubt. But an incident similar to the Rodney King beating already has happened here. It's a matter of public record. Surely the editors of the Afro know this.

Shortly after the King beating, Evening Sun columnist Dan Rodricks wrote an article about what happened to Baltimore's Gregory Neptune after he struck and injured a city police officer. Neptune was kicked in the face by another city police officer. That little act of charity was caught on video tape. Neptune was beaten more severely by other officers after he got to the police station.

Rodricks' article revealed a number of things, among them that McLean obviously doesn't bother to read her hometown newspapers. The Neptune incident seems to support anecdotal evidence that Baltimore police exact their pound of flesh from suspects who either kill or injure cops.

Police, of course, are not the only ones who administer what black radical writer and prison activist George Jackson referred to as "club therapy." When corrections officer Herman Toulson was stabbed to death by an inmate at the state penitentiary, other corrections officers gave the inmate a beating similar in brutality and viciousness to the one bestowed on Rodney King. Or so the inmate would later charge in court.

A judge dismissed charges against the corrections officers. The inmate, because he was an inmate, lacked credibility. This curious ruling provoked no public outcry and sent a clear message to corrections officers throughout the state: We'll understand if you go a little overboard when inmates kill or injure guards. We will give you the same leeway we give our police officers. Just be sure no one has a video recorder around.

A more cogent and thought-provoking question for the Afro editors to pose would have been this one: If Rodney King had been a suspect in a serious felony, would his brutal beating have come to light?

I contend that if King were a cop killer, not one news director in the country would have had the guts to show that infamous tape. Public outrage about police brutality is inversely proportional to the seriousness of the offense the victim of such brutality is suspected of having committed -- which amounts, basically, to no real outrage at all.

In April of 1962, officers of the same Los Angeles police force fired into a group of Black Muslims. Evidence indicated that the lone Muslim killed in the incident was walking toward the police with his arms outstretched, clearly unarmed. A coronner's inquest ruled the incident justifiable homicide. Black Muslims, then as now, were perceived as a menace to the public.

In 1969 Chicago police shot to death Fred Hampton -- leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party. Though Hampton was comatose from drugs that may have been given to him by an FBI informant and couldn't possibly have participated in the "shootout" the police claimed had occurred, none of the officers was indicted for murder. Black Panthers were, after all, a threat to national security. The country chose to forgive and forget.

Here in Baltimore an alleged Jamaican drug dealer died in police custody in 1982. Police claimed the man went into cardiac arrest. Witnesses said the cardiac arrest was caused by an officer stepping on the Janmaican's throat. The public chose to believe the officers. But even if the witnesses were telling the truth, so what? The guy was a drug dealer.

When Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates harped on Rodney King's criminal past, he was being neither inadvertently callous nor deliberately stupid. He was hoping to make King enough of a public menace to get the cops involved in the beating, his department and himself off the hook.

Gates knows Americans have a certain tolerance for police brutality -- so much so that we should really consider legalizing it. If we can't practice what we preach, perhaps we should try preaching what we practice.

Gregory P. Kane is a Baltimore writer. +

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