Rodney King epic: Now it can be told

January 25, 1998|By H.G. Bissinger | H.G. Bissinger,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Official Negligence," by Lou Cannon. Times Books. 698 pages. $35.

There is something wonderfully reassuring about a journalist such as Lou Cannon. While so many writers of non fiction today seem exclusively preoccupied with issues of narrative and character development, Cannon's obsession is with something so basic and essential it almost seems anachronistic.

It isn't the art of the perfect narrative that he cares about, but the art of the facts, as many facts as he can possibly compile, not in the name of showing off his reportorial skills, but in the name of something far more elusive - trying to make sense of issues that are complicated, complex and not subject to the reflexive judgments that have become the sad legacy of our entertainment culture.

Cannon's newest book, "Official Negligence," is a 698-page account of the city of Los Angeles, and the Los Angeles Police Department, in the wake of the 1991 beating of Rodney King by four LAPD officers.

This is a barest-bones description of the book, because Cannon's exhaustive and admirable account is a depiction of the way in which virtually all of our public institutions-police, prosecutors, politicians, defense attorneys, juries, judges, the media - have become so dependent on cynicism and manipulation and spin that they have ceased to effectively function. The backdrop is Los Angeles, but the lessons of "Official Negligence" have application everywhere, the ultimate tale of immorality.

Cannon's book has the same sweep of history as J. Anthony Lukas' "Common Ground." Just as important, Cannon has followed the invaluable words that Lukas offered in his author's note at the beginning of his book, the difficulty he had, despite nearly a decade of reporting, in assigning "easy labels of guilt or virtue."

One of the greatest strengths of "Official Negligence" is the way in which Cannon refuses to make quick-draw judgments. This is not a book in which the participants are neatly wrapped up into tidy packages with colorful bows. There are no easy villains, and there are no easy heroes, and it is the very power of the book that as you read it, and sift through its pages, you feel as much sympathy for the horrors of what happened to Rodney King as you do for the horrors of what happened to one of the officers who was there that fateful and awful night, Stacey Koon.

Neither was unblemished in their conduct. But Cannon makes it clear that both these men, despite the gripping irony of being on totally opposite ends of the spectrum, became sacrificial pawns for a system that was rotten to the core and predicated on dishonor. In Cannon's hands, you learn that the infamous videotape of the King beating was edited by television in a way that key moments explaining the conduct of the officers there that night were omitted.

Selective editing is dangerous enough, but you further learn that the moments were cut out for the simple reason that the images were a little bit fuzzy and therefore would not lend themselves to "good" television, i.e., ratings. You learn that so much of what predicated the behavior of the four officers that night wasn't racism or brutality but fear, chaos and a shocking lack of training. You learn that the media effortlessly stoked the race card.

Most disturbing of all, you learn that the riots that occurred in the fTC aftermath of the acquittal of the four officers on state charges could have been prevented. Instead, what unfolded that night on the part of the LAPD would have made for a great episode of "Keystone cops" had the stakes not been so high. You learn that as the riots started, LAPD Chief Daryl Gates deliberately decided to attend a fund-raiser instead of staying in command.

You learn that officers at a key post weren't even equipped with a television set to see what was happening. You learn that the phones weren't working, and in one of the most powerful moments in the book, you hear the following exchange between a LAPD sergeant and a lieutenant: "Mike, they're killing people at Florence and Normandie, they're really killing people. We need police officers at Florence and Normandie - what are you guys doing?"

"We're meeting and planning."

"Official Negligence" is not an easy read. Unless you are bionic, it is a book you will put down and put down often. The pages are thick and detailed, and Cannon's strengths as a reporter are not matched by his skills as a writer.

There are moments where one cries out for a little more passion and vigor, but there are so many incredible nuggets in these pages, so many painful revelations, that it is worth sticking with every step of the way.

"Official Negligence" is a magnificent book, one of those rare works that actually rises to the epic stature that it hoped to reach in the first place. It is also a book that sticks in your mind afterward, particularly when you realize that all of the horrors that unfolded in Los Angeles - the beating, the riots, the ruination of so very many - were tragically needless.

H.G. Bissinger is author of the recently published "A Prayer for the City," a non fiction account of the city of Philadelphia and Mayor Edward G. Rendell. In 1987, he and two other reporters at the Philadelphia Inquirer won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for a series on corruption in the Philadelphia court system.

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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