Los Angeles' Tragic Warning

May 01, 1992

Law-enforcement authorities across the country, including Baltimore, should take the Rodney King case, and its aftermath, as a deadly warning.

The acquittal of the four white policemen charged with beating Mr. King, a black motorist, does not mean police officers now have open season to use excessive force to subdue citizens they are trying to apprehend. On the contrary, this tragedy, recorded for all time on videotape, must be seen as a textbook example of what not to do.

If police departments are not chastened, they should be. What happened to Mr. King should not happen to any citizen. That it did reduces public respect for the police function at a time when society is becoming increasingly subject to violence and needs protection. That the victim was an African American should force communities everywhere to honestly examine minority grievances and discrepancies in the treatment of non-white suspects.

Police cannot be held accountable for society's wrongdoing or bias. But no police force in a major urban area can keep order while failing to be sensitive to the issues of social inequality. The Los Angeles officers who beat Mr. King, rather than even-handed enforcers of traffic laws, seemed more like enforcers of prejudice. It confirmed the worst fears of people already enraged over exclusion from the economic, political and cultural benefits of the society around them.

Failure to respect the rights of even a former convict to fair treatment thus became a prescription for stripping away respect for the law. Los Angeles now has a long rebuilding job ahead, in its relations with its least privileged neighborhoods as well as in the commercial centers devastated by the emotional whirlwind the Rodney King trial unleashed.

Baltimore is fortunate in having a police department that has long been directed by officials who do not condone the kind of culture that has brought the Los Angeles force into disrepute and has even turned some of its members into critics and accusers. Now, as that same police force seeks to quell riots that have left at least 13 dead, it must go about its task under tacit restraints that only make the job tougher. May it never happen here.

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