Bill aimed at curbing brutality would allow suits against police departments

July 24, 1991|By Kathleen Beeman | Kathleen Beeman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON HC MHB — WASHINGTON -- A bill designed to curb police brutality across the nation was introduced yesterday in Congress in response to the videotaped beating of motorist Rodney G. King by Los Angeles police officers.

The measure, offered by Representative Don Edwards, D-Calif., chairman of a key House judiciary subcommittee, would allow either private citizens or the U.S. attorney general to sue police departments for excessive use of force.

Under the proposal, police violence resulting in bodily injury would be a federal crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Brutality leading to death would be penalized by up to life imprisonment.

"The federal government presently has no authority to correct unconstitutional patterns of police abuse," Mr. Edwards said at a news conference.

"Policies involving choke-holds, use of deadly force, random searches and other practices are largely insulated from review."

Mr. Edwards said the legislation, which would be attached to the 1991 crime bill now being written in Congress, was drafted after the King case made it clear that there were "serious deficiencies" in the federal response to police misconduct.

A videotape shown worldwide in March chronicled a beating by police of Mr. King with a baton and repeated shots from a stun gun. Mr. King had been stopped for a traffic violation.

"This bill is directed at all the cases that don't get videotaped," Mr. Edwards said.

Modeled after civil rights laws, the bill would allow victims to go to court to seek an order forbidding further abuse by police departments that "encourage or tolerate" patterns of police misconduct.

It also would require the attorney general to collect data from state and local governments on complaints of law enforcement abuses.

Compliance would be voluntary, but up to $400 million in federal funds funneled through the Justice Department could be withheld if local governments failed to cooperate.

Since 1981, roughly 79,000 reports of police misconduct have led to only 537 grand jury investigations, according to Justice Department statistics.

The House Judiciary Committee probably will act on the crime bill next week, said Mr. Edwards, chairman of one of its most important subcommittees. He said he expected the full House to vote on the measure in September.

The crime bill, which includes stiffer handgun controls and a federal death penalty for 51 offenses, was approved by the Senate earlier this month.

The introduction of the brutality bill came one day after embattled Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates announced that he would retire from the force in April if a successor has been chosen by then.

Numerous community and civil rights groups called for his resignation after the release of the videotaped beating. Representative Julian C. Dixon, a Los Angeles Democrat, said yesterday that while he was glad to hear of the planned resignation, he would rather see Mr. Gates step down immediately. Mr. Dixon is a co-sponsor of the Edwards proposal.

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