Changing course in L.A.

Jerome H. Skolnick & James J. Fyfe

April 20, 1993|By Jerome H. Skolnick & James J. Fyfe

SATURDAY'S DRAMATIC verdicts in the Rodney King case marked the end of a terrible ordeal. But, from another perspective, the trial's conclusion is just a milepost in a far longer process. All four of the accused cops are broken financially and professionally, and are awaiting another day in court when they and the city of Los Angeles will once again face Rodney G. King in a civil trial. In the meantime, they will earn something by saving their stories for tabloid television where they will be paid. But what about the rest of their lives? What will they have to sell when their 15 minutes of fame have vanished?

Sure, some cops and some citizens will regard these cops as victims of an unfair criminal justice system, one that chose for political reasons to try them twice. Through their attorneys, Stacey Koon and Laurence Powell will argue that they have been subjected to double jeopardy. Unless the appellate courts are inclined to overturn a long-held precedent of American law, these pleas will fail, and this case will be history.

There is, however, a lesson to be learned from the two prosecutions. The federal prosecution occurred only when the local prosecution failed, and the Feds succeeded because they did their job much better than the district attorney's office did its job. Indeed, Los Angeles now has a district attorney with a history of prosecuting police wrongdoing in no small measure because his predecessor failed in the first King case.

The Justice Department's case was better presented in two important ways. The federal jury got the opportunity to see that Mr. King was as real and as human as the cops accused of beating him, while the county prosecutor's blunder in keeping Mr. King out of court allowed the Simi Valley jury to think of him as a monstrous creature, in poor contrast to the four well-groomed men sitting at the defense table. Nor was the prosecutor helped in trying the case in a community to which many people have moved precisely because they fear people like Mr. King. His absence allowed the defense to play on the jury's worst fears and stereotypes.

Also, the Justice Department's experts in police use of force were able to discredit the defense's experts. As the prosecution experts testified, police are trained to use batons only when no other less drastic way of defending against an actual attack is available. Police also learn that using the baton against an individual's head is a form of deadly force, justifiable only when assailants present direct threats to officers' lives. Thus, no reasonable cop would regard the beating as justified: Mr. King was not attacking the officers when they struck him and $H presented no apparent danger to life. Further, another 20 or so cops were on the scene and should have been able to help pin lTC and handcuff King with scarcely any blows at all.

The dual prosecutions in the King case point up another issue: Local district attorneys take on police brutality cases only with great reluctance and risk. Trying corrupt police who profit from their misdeeds generally wins a prosecutor points in all quarters, but many cops and ordinary citizens see prosecutions of cops for brutality as attempts to punish the good guys for doing their jobs too well.

For local prosecutors, this is far more than a problem of politics and public opinion. District attorneys and the police are on the same team, and the quality of justice depends heavily on an open and trusting union between them. Unfortunately, vigorous local prosecution of brutal cops sometimes alienates the police and endangers this relationship. Thus, all district attorneys know that such prosecutions involve trade-offs between the mandate to achieve justice in a single case and the requirement to keep the wheels of justice running smoothly in their day-to-day routine.

The King case offers a dramatic illustration of why we must rethink this arrangement. At present, the U.S. Department of Justice regards itself as a last resort to be employed only when local prosecutors have failed -- or simply refuse -- to achieve justice. Because of the enormous violations of fundamental democratic principles and the political volatility of police brutality cases, the federal government should consider bearing the primary responsibility for prosecution. The Justice Department might begin this process by carefully examining the evidence in civil suits in which plaintiffs have proved that police violated their constitutional rights.

Still, discussions of prosecutorial tactics may well obscure the // larger and more significant issue of the law's limits in addressing the problems that bedevil communities like South-Central Los Angeles. Perhaps now we can turn our attention from the drama of the courtroom to the humdrum, less engaging but ultimately more compelling realities of the streets where young men like Rodney King and cops like Stacey Koon find themselves on a tragic and seemingly inescapable collision course.

Jerome H. Skolnick is a University of California, Berkeley law professor. James J. Fyfe, a former New York City police officer, teaches at Temple University. They are the authors of "Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force."

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