When victims go on trial

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

March 12, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

Police brutality cases are a lot like rape cases.

In rape cases, the victim is as much on trial as the suspect.

The same is true with police brutality.

Rape has been described as the most underreported crime in America.

Some studies suggest police brutality may run a close second.

Nothing illustrates this as poignantly as the Rodney King incident.

Last year, millions of horrified Americans watched the videotape of police officers clubbing and kicking a seemingly helpless citizen, who allegedly had committed the heinous crime of speeding.

Officials say King was clubbed or kicked some 55 times and received several blasts from an electric stun gun. He ended up with multiple head injuries and lacerations. His doctors say he suffered permanent impairment.

We felt no doubt at all about what we saw on that tape.

Now, four officers are standing trial in Simi Valley, Calif., on charges of assault, excessive use of force and falsifying reports.

And after a week of testimony, their line of defense is beginning to take shape. Put simply, they claim King deserved what he got.

Defense attorneys have described the victim as "bizarre" and "violent" when officers confronted him.

They claim the officers were frightened because King appeared to have been under the influence of drugs. They said he met them with a blank stare, watery eyes, a swaying gait, and was slow to obey their commands to lie down. They said that when he got out of his car after leading officers on an eight-mile, high-speed chase, he looked up at a circling helicopter and had the effrontery to laugh.

Not only that, King has a record.

A Superior Court judge last week blocked a defense attempt to introduce into evidence King's prior conviction for robbery in order to demonstrate that he had a propensity to violence.

But the judge allowed the defense to tell the jury that King had been released from prison two months before the incident and was afraid receiving a speeding ticket would be a parole violation.

Does any of this justify a savage beating at the hands of police?

Does a woman of questionable morals deserve to be raped?

The victim's character, in either case, shouldn't make a difference, but fact is, it usually does.

This special vulnerability of people who bring charges against police officers-- and the fact that the public has a hard time caring, absent dramatic video footage-- is the topic of two manuals, published by two very different groups.

"Fighting Police Abuse: A Community Action Manual" is put out by the American Civil Liberties Union. It is a how-to booklet for mobilizing community action to influence police department policy.

The manual warns that official statistics of citizens' complaints can be misleading, since the overwhelming majority of allegations of misconduct, discourtesy or excessive force are never reported.

The ACLU urges citizens to determine the internal "culture" of their local police force by compiling statistics on police shootings, the number of times officers use physical force and the number of lawsuits filed against departments.

The ACLU says true police accountability can never be achieved without an independent civilian review board with investigative and enforcement powers.

Meanwhile, a group called the Adam Abdul Hakeem Defense Committee in Manhattan has published, "What Should You Do if You Are Arrested or Framed by the Cops?" -- a how-to booklet for persons facing arrest.

This manual offers very practical advice to criminal suspects, such as how to find an attorney, how to respond to police inquiries.

"The cops are not your friends," the book warns. "Never confess. Don't think you can outsmart the cops."

What both of these manuals share is a sense of urgency about the need for police accountability, an urgency that ordinary citizens seem to lack.

Most people have bought into the current rhetoric about the need to declare war on crime, disregarding the truth that a police department that goes to war against any part of the citizenry does not end up with more law and order but much, much less.

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