First came the video footage, a shocking, silent documentary of police brutality. Last week the Los Angeles Police Department released the transcript of dialogue that made the drama even more chilling. "Oops," read the computer message from the patrol car of Officers Laurence Powell and Timothy Wind. "Oops what?" asked an unidentified officer. The reply: "I haven't beaten anyone this bad in a long time." "Oh, not again," the other officer responded. "Why for you do that?. I thought you agreed to chill out for a while. What did he do?" Said Powell, one of four officers now under indictment for the beating of motorist Rodney King: "I think he was dusted. many broken bones later. after the pursuit."
The troubling evidence further divided Los Angeles, already split over the case - and the future of Police Chief Daryl Gates. A Los Angeles Times poll showed that 31 percent want the police chief to resign immediately; another 31 percent say he should go if the indicted officers are convicted. The black community, bolstered by an ACLU advertising campaign, continued to organize anti-Gates protests. Some of the city's labor leaders called for "the formation of something similar to the Knapp Commission," the independent citizens' group that investigated police corruption in New York City in the 1970s. President Bush, speaking out on the King case for the first time, was careful not to condemn Gates. But he was still blunt: "It was sickening to see the beating that was rendered, and there's no way - there's no way, in my view - to explain that away."
The King case reverberated in precinct houses and courtrooms around the country. As King was taken into custody, says his attorney, Steven Lerman, he kept thinking to himself, "Who's going to believe you?" In fact, the much-replayed video not only told King's side of the story but may help make other defendants' claims more credible. In a case that he had always believed was a "dead-bang loser," San Francisco lawyer V. Roy Lefcourt argued that cops framed his client, Frank McDowell, on drug charges. Their alleged motive? In 1984, McDowell, a black postal worker, had filed brutality charges against police. McDowell was acquitted last week and, after the trial, one juror admitted the King case was a factor in McDowell's acquittal.
The Justice Department's sweeping national investigation of police brutality is forcing police departments in cities of all sizes to examine their records (box). In New York, five policemen were indicted last week for the death by strangulation of Frederico Pereira, a suspect found sleeping in a stolen car in February. A grand jury in Palm Beach, Fla., is reported to be investigating the case of Robert Jewett, a 5-foot-7, 170-pound laborer, allegedly beaten to death by two undercover cops, one a weight lifter and the other a former college-football lineman. Meanwhile, the damaging disclosures continued to pile up in Los Angeles:
The LAPD admitted 27 law-enforcement officers were at the scene of the beating: 21 city police, four from the California Highway Patrol and two Unified School District officers. Other city police who were on scene will testify before the grand jury. The four indicted officers have delayed entering their pleas until this week.
The LAPD also released computer transcripts that show a pattern of racist jargon among police. In one inflammatory exchange the same night as the King beating, a message from Powell and Wind's car refers to a domestic dispute in a black household as "right out of 'Gorillas in the Mist'." "Ha, ha, ha, ha," responds their unidentified correspondent, "Let me guess who be the parties."
In his report of the incident, Sgt. Stacey Koon, 40, who has also been indicted, wrote that King suffered "severe facial cuts. of a minor nature. A split inner lip." King's doctors report that his face is partially paralyzed and that, among other injuries, he has nine skull fractures, a broken cheekbone, a shattered eye socket and a broken leg. (Lerman plans to sue the city for $56 million, described as $1 million for each blow struck.) Nurses at the hospital testified the police continued to abuse King verbally in the emergency room, one calling the beating "a home run."
Koon also intimated in his report that King was using PCP, a hallucinogenic drug. According to the LAPD, King's blood test revealed a high alcohol content and traces of marijuana, but no PCP. Bryant Allen, 25, one of two passengers in King's car, told investigators that each of them had consumed 40 ounces of malt liquor. California Highway Patrol Officer Melanie Singer said King acted "heavily intoxicated" when he first got out of the car, laughing, grabbing his buttocks and dancing.
California Highway Patrol records confirm that during the car chase that preceded the beating, King was never going more than 65 mph, not 115 mph as police reported earlier.
An embattled Gates, 64, may feel that the forces to bring him down are closing in. Mayor Tom Bradley, who does not have the power to fire Gates, has been criticized by Jesse Jackson and other fellow black leaders for not being tough enough on the police chief. But last week Bradley pressured for the release of the transcripts - and then denounced what they disclosed. "We must face the fact that there appears to be a dangerous trend of racially motivated incidents running through at least segments of our police department," he said. The police board, which has severely limited power to fire Gates only after showing "good and significant cause," asked the city attorney to explain the rules for censure, discipline and dismissal last week. Appearing before an unruly meeting of the city council a day later, Gates withstood more calls for his removal. Later he made an emotional appeal to keep his job: "8,300 police officers would believe me a traitor to them if I did not say they believe I can help," he said. "They believe I can lead them out of this."
Inevitably, the cop on the beat has been shaken hardest by the King case. No one, in the turmoil following the videotape, has suggested that a cop's job is either easy or unnecessary. While Gates fought to salvage his reputation last week, the need for good police protection was driven home on Capitol Hill, where victims of violent crimes testified in favor of gun control - an issue the Los Angeles police chief himself has advocated in previous hearings. But right now police are worried about their image problem. In Los Angeles, and elsewhere, whatever reform is finally mandated will have to come from within the police forces. A federal appeals court in Seattle ruled last month that local governments and law-enforcement agencies will be held liable for failing to teach officers the legal limits of force. That landmark decision, and the LAPD crisis, seem certain to guarantee that police-training programs stress that courage and stamina go hand in hand with judgment and restraint.
In 1989, three off-duty police, who had been drinking, tailgated a black woman on her way to work at 5 a.m. When the chase was over, Officer Alex Gonzales had shot her to death; he is now appealing his manslaughter conviction.
A grand jury exonerated Officer Gary Spath in the shooting death of a black teenager. But the state's attorney general dismissed the finding, and Spath goes on trial for manslaughter this fall.
Seven protesters recently won a settlement in a $24 million lawsuit for a beating they received at a United Farm Workers demonstration in 1988.