After the verdict in L.A.

April 19, 1993

Benjamin Chavis, the new executive director of the National Association for the advancement of Colored People, said yesterday that based on the evidence, all four Los Angeles police officers should have been convicted of assaulting Rodney King. "We have partial justice in Los Angeles," he said.

We think that is unfair to the jurors. So is the charge that two officers were convicted out of fear of a repeat of last year's rioting. "You sacrifice two innocent men so that maybe other people can live," said an attorney for one of the officers. But a juror said in an interview that they never considered the possibility of riots in trying to reach a verdict. We believe him. Jurors with that in mind would have been more likely to convict all four defendants.

The federal court in Los Angeles is where this case should have been tried in the first place. Though the four officers were not formally charged with basing their actions on Rodney King's race, in fact this was a racial case in the eyes of the nation. After the four officers were acquitted in state court last year, blacks rioted in Los Angeles and other cities. They believed that verdict epitomized white police violence against blacks -- and not just black criminal suspects, either. Federal judges and prosecutors have long been viewed as the most reliable dispensers of justice in cases where race is a factor. It is noteworthy that the federal prosecution was launched when the Justice Department was headed by a Republican and carried forward to conclusion when it was headed by a Democrat.

With this case decided and over, are there lessons that will benefit all law enforcement agencies? There is certainly one. The need for measured responses to provocations. Being a policeman is a tough job. Situations like this one -- high speed, dangerous car chase, apparent resisting of arrest -- can start the adrenalin pumping, making even the best trained officers both fearful and angry. But so-called "street-justice" is never appropriate or excusable. Police leadership, especially in racially divided, mutually suspicious big cities, must see to it that all officers are trained to behave professional at all times.

A second lesson in this trial is one that was apparent from events outside the courtroom. The Los Angeles Police Department was mobilized as never before during the seven tense days the jury was deliberating. And crime in the city tumbled dramatically. The crime rate was as much as 60 percent below normal in some neighborhoods last week. Police departments can't right the wrongs that are the root causes of crime, but given sufficient manpower, they can make cities much safer, while those root causes are dealt with by other institutions.

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