Just doing their job?

Gregory P. Kane

September 27, 1993|By Gregory P. Kane

ACROSS the chasm created by two trials, black America and white America try to communicate.

The trials are famous because of their victims, not their defendants.

The first Rodney King trial ended in acquittal of the four police officers accused of using excessive force and triggered the worst rioting of this century. The second Rodney King trial -- in which the four officers were prosecuted for violating Rodney King's civil rights -- ended in a guilty verdict for two of them. But when they were sentenced to only 2 1/2 years in prison, black America fumed that a dual standard of justice prevailed in the land.

The Reginald Denny trial -- named for the white truck driver beaten nearly to death by four black men at the start of the L.A. riots -- began in July and should end this week. Some blacks have contended that a guilty verdict and heavy sentences will be proof positive of a double standard of justice. The bludgeoning of Rodney King and the pummeling of Reginald Denny are comparable offenses, they say.

White America insists they are not, and pedagogically presumes to instruct black America on the difference. The assailants of Reginald Denny committed felony assault with intent to murder against a law-abiding citizen. Rodney King was a parole violator who led police on a high-speed car chase while driving intoxicated and resisting arrest. By subduing him, the police were merely "doing their job."

That, of course, is precisely black America's point. That is what worries us. It haunts and terrifies us: The police were just doing their job. Beat a Rodney King into submission, and they were just doing their job. Beat a Malice Green to death, and defense lawyers will claim the officers who did it were "just doing their job on the front lines of a war zone where drugs and crime are rampant." In some cases, the police will "just do their jobs" when the suspect has not committed a crime.

Henry Dumas, a superbly gifted African-American writer, died at the youthful age of 34 -- the victim of a police shooting that was said to be a case of mistaken identity. Dumas was guilty of no crime, but paid the ultimate price of a white police officer "doing his job."

Derwin Pannell was shot by New York City transit police in November 1992. Reggie Miller of Nashville was assaulted by police in that city in December of the same year. Not only were these two black men not committing any crime, they were actually trying to do their jobs; both are police officers. Officer Pannell was trying to apprehend a suspect. Officer Miller was on a stakeout when he was assaulted by officers from his own precinct who worked the same shift.

"They were only doing their jobs," white America would have us )) believe of the officers in both the Pannell and Miller cases. Black

America will respond that recognizing the line that separates acceptable force from excessive force and knowing when not to cross it is also part of a police officer's job.

By the same token, white America will ask why some black Americans have seemingly embraced the defendants in the Reginald Denny trial. There have been several "Free the L.A. Four" rallies in Los Angeles, and as yet no prominent black leader has said unequivocally that Mr. Denny's assailants, if found guilty, should receive the maximum penalty allowed by law.

The silence suggests a tacit approval by black America -- or at least a portion of it -- of the actions of the mob that indiscriminately attacked innocent people during the L.A. riots. White America will remind black America that historically the victims of mob violence in this country have been black, and that if anyone should categorically condemn mob violence, we should do it. On this point, white America would be right.

The issues of excessive use of police force and mob violence are not "choose-up-sides" issues. Both involve principles that Americas should readily support: Police brutality is acceptable only in police states. Mob violence is not acceptable in a society that considers itself civilized.

Anyone found guilty of violating either principle should be given the maximum sentence the law allows.

Gregory P. Kane is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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