The week that Los Angeles has been dreading has arrived. Four L.A. Police Department officers charged with criminally beating Rodney King go on trial in federal district court. The officers were acquitted in a state court in a nearby suburban county last year of all but one minor count. That touched off the worst rioting in this century; the county coroner attributed 60 deaths to the fiery, bloody reaction to the verdict. Property damage has been estimated at $1 billion.
Many Californians -- many Americans -- believe the officers have been shown on videotape to be clearly guilty, and so they fear another acquittal will provoke another riot. But surely that is not so. That the police officers are being tried a second time -- and in federal court -- is clear proof the system is not supportive of white brutality against African-Americans. Many people believe Daryl Gates, the L.A. police chief when the beating took place, was a racist. He is gone. The new chief is a veteran African-American law enforcement officer from Philadelphia who has been working night and day to rid the LAPD of whatever culture of white racism still exists.
Police Chief Willie Williams also has been working to prepare his department for a more professional response to the first signs of rioting. Last year's riots might never have begun had the LAPD and other law enforcement units done their job in a timely fashion. One of the clearest lessons of the urban disorders of the 1960s was that massive force promptly employed stops angry, violent demonstrations from turning ugly. If Los Angeles, the state of California and the federal government did not re-learn that lesson last year in South Central Los Angeles, they never will.
Federal courts are behind their state counterparts in recognizing the need for the public to see what goes on in courtrooms. It is unfortunate that this trial will not be televised. All people are going to see -- over and over, no doubt -- is the sickening videotape of the beating, with none of the accompanying attempts to put it into the context that the jurors of last year rightly or wrongly found persuasive of innocence.
One reason some observers fear a repeat verdict is that the prosecution has a tougher case to make under federal law than it did under state law. U.S. attorneys must convince jurors not only that excessive force was used, but that the police officers intended to use such force: That the cops didn't lose their cool, they coolly inflicted punishment.
This is something no law enforcement agency can ever allow to go unpunished. But under the American system, prosecutors still must prove it to a jury with the same degree of certitude -- no more, no less -- that is demanded in the case of any other defendant.