In L.A., there's more on trial than four white police officers Minorities and authorities worry about verdict.

April 24, 1992|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

LOS ANGELES -- There may be more at stake than the fates of four white police officers charged in the Rodney King beating, now that the jury has begun deliberations.

In many circles, the case has put L.A. law on trial.

The jury deliberated 2 1/2 hours yesterday before retiring for the night. They were to resume today.

"If these guys walk or are not sanctioned in any meaningful way, it will signal there is open season in minority communities suffering from poverty, crime, drugs and gangs," said Joe Hicks, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a black civil rights group. Mr. King is black.

"If they let these guys walk, there's going to be an ugly mood afoot in the inner city."

Throughout the region, reactions have been strongly mixed as thecase of the March 3, 1991, beating captured on videotape has unfolded in court. In different pockets, tensions are high as people worry about the impacts the officers' verdicts may have on law enforcement and the communities that authorities pledge "to protect and to serve."

Already, Compton City Councilwoman Patricia Moore noted, many people in the black community are outraged over an earlier court decision regarding a black homicide victim. In that case, a Superior Court judge last year sentenced a Korean-born grocer to probation in the shooting death of a 15-year-old girl.

"The anger runs deeply," Ms. Moore said, adding it's that possible acquittals in the police case could spark violence. Community leaders are planning a meeting at a church in South Central Los Angeles the night the verdicts are announced, as a means to celebrate or -- in case of acquittals -- to provide a positive forum for venting frustration.

Over at a Los Angeles police bar called the Short Stop, off-duty officers are keenly aware of the potential for violence. But equally worrisome, they say, is the impact of the King beating and the upcoming verdict on the work they do.

"You know who's going to suffer? The public. Streets will run with blood," said one officer, who declined to give his name. He says his fears are not based on a potential uprising, but on the sense among officers that fear of lawsuits prevents them from doing their jobs properly.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block has said he doesn't believe the change is related to the King beating. But in a brief interview last week, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates said he is convinced it is.

"Officer morale is down," he said. "I see dedication and commitment being diminished."

However, officer Darin McAllister, who is black, sees a different side of the department, and he worries.

"A lot of officers are turning their heads because it's safer that way. While they used to go out and look for aggressors, now it's like, 'I want to wait until someone falls in my lap before I get involved.' "

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