As Cops, Would We Act Differently?

NORMAN PARADIS

April 21, 1993|By NORMAN PARADIS

New York. --I watched the trial of four police officers in Los Angeles with special interest. The feeling of deja vu that I experienced was different from most people, who probably were reminded only of the first trial.

For me, this drama of societal failure harked back to a time in the mid-1980s when I was practicing emergency medicine in Southern California. Part of my responsibilities included serving as senior resident on the Los Angeles County Hospital jail ward. All newly arrested persons with medical problems, or those who had been injured during their arrests, were brought to the ward for treatment. Rodney King was treated at this clinic.

Our patients were usually young African-American or Latino males suffering the early effects or chronic complications of trauma. Doctors and nurses who care for such patients consider trauma a chronic, progressive, eventually terminal disease. Care given these patients was by residents and interns because there is little money to be made treating such patients. With certain exceptions, I found them to be easy patients to work with. If you treated them with a modicum of dignity, they were usually grateful.

What does this have to do with the beating of Rodney King? Well, the clinic's records provide answers to the two most fundamental questions asked about the beating. Was this incident exceptionally violent for the Los Angeles police? How often does this kind of beating occur?

While I was on the Los Angeles County Hospital Jail Service, we usually had more than three or four persons each night who were beaten as badly or worse than King. King's injuries, as they have been reported, would put him at the mild end of the spectrum.

Colleagues have told me that King was evaluated, treated and released to jail because his injuries were not considered serious enough to warrant admission to the hospital jail ward. He was brought back to the hospital the next day when the news broke. Other people were injured worse by the police that very night.

Saying that the average was three or more people each night does not give a full sense of the situation. On a hot summer night, sometimes as many as 10 or 15 people would be brought in, intoxicated on either alcohol or other drugs, and badly injured.

Often it was not clear if they had been beaten by assailants, friends, family or police. Frequently, the police would take the credit for some injuries while attributing others to an angry spouse.

Once or twice a month, someone would come in beaten so badly that he died before treatment could be rendered. Although most of these people were young African-Americans and Hispanics, the Los Angeles police did not restrict themselves solely to these ethnic groups. There were almost always one or two intoxicated white males beaten just as badly.

What is most disturbing to me when I watch those brief seconds of the King video -- I've never seen the whole thing -- is not the beating itself but how well I understand the methodology behind During my time on the jail ward, I befriended several Los Angeles police officers. In the course of conversation, I asked why they occasionally beat people so badly.

The story of one officer still rings in my memory. He explained it something like this: ''You have to see it from my point of view. Every day, I get up, get dressed and go to work. During the day, I know I am going to have an 'unpleasant interaction' with a bunch of these 'wise guys.'For them, it is their standard monthly chance to show up a police officer in front of their pals. So keep in mind, what is an occasional event for them is an hourly occurrence for me.

''I know some of them are going to do something stupid, take a swing at me, grab at my gun, try to hit me with their car. Now, if I give them any chance at all, let's say 1 percent, that means that in 100 days, I am going to get hit or shot or run over. Now, this is my job, but how am I going to have any kind of career if I let myself get hurt every three months?

''How would your family feel if you came home from work injured on a regular basis? You know as well as I do, you would be out of that job fast. Now, I don't have that option. So, I am not going to give that person even a 1 percent chance. I am going to ask them to get out of the car and lie down on the road with their hands out. If they do that, then everything is going to be fine.

''But, if they move at me in any way, like they are going to hit me, grab for my gun or any other kind of crap, I am going to do what is necessary to make sure that when I go home that night, my kids aren't going to have to ask me where I got those stitches or that cast. If I go home at all.

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