It was a question of control. The four Los Angeles policemen indicted for beating black motorist Rodney King a year ago went on trial last week, charged with assault. They claimed they were only doing their job-that King seemed to be in a drug-induced, "trancelike state" and struggled with officers trying to subdue him. Prosecutors contended that an infamous video of the incident speaks for itself, showing more than 60 blows and kicks raining down on King. The prosecutors' version got unexpected support last week. Breaking police ranks, one defendant claimed he had tried to stop the beating-and charged that his fellow officers were "out of control."
"Control" is at the heart of the Rodney King affair. Many Angelenos see the beating as part of a larger pattern of brutality. They fear their police have grown too powerful, often behaving as if they were above the law. "The problem is that the Los Angeles Police Department is not accountable to the citizens it is sworn to protect," said Warren Christopher, head of a special commission that proposes to rein in the police with stricter civilian oversight. The concern touches not only the LAPD but also the sheriff's office and the private security forces that seem to be everywhere. Many wealthy neighborhoods are fenced in, patrolled by some 3,500 security firms employing more than 50,000 guards. L.A. may not be a police state, says Ramona Ripston, head of southern California's American Civil Liberties Union, but it comes "pretty close." Consider some recent cases of police excess:
Los Angeles police are the nation's most trigger-happy. Cops killed 3.0 people and wounded 8.1 for every 1,000 officers in 1986, according to figures released by the Christopher Commission. Detroit ranks a distant second, with stats of 1.2 and 5.0.
Two years ago police killed three men as they sat in their car after robbing a McDonald's. Their families are now in court, charging that the police department's Special Investigations Section (SIS), a 19-man surveillance team, is actually a "death squad" assigned to kill career criminals. The families' attorney Stephen Yagman claims the SIS stalks suspects, waits for them to commit crimes, then often shoots when moving in for an arrest. Deputy City Attorney Don Vincent insists the officers acted properly and that the SIS is a "necessary organization."
Long Beach Police Chief Lawrence Binkley was recently fired amid questions that he kept secret files on city officials. Binkley, who had wanted to become LAPD chief, says the investigations were not "political."
As the prosecution in the King case will try to show, the Los Angeles Police Department has become a force unto itself. Relatively small in relation to the city sprawl it has to cover, the LAPD has honed itself into a de facto paramilitary force, a "thin blue line" modeled on the marines. It pioneered the use of special SWAT teams and deploys an arsenal of high-tech gear, from motorized battering rams to Israeli-made assault rifles and French-built helicopters.
With crime surging, however, the spirit of "a few good men" has given way to a mentality of "us against them." Describing their encounters with police, ghetto kids talk of getting "tazed" (stung with Tazer stun guns) or "proned" (spreadeagled on the pavement). They know better than to "ride four" (four black men in a car signals "gang" to cops) and have grown accustomed to stops-and-searches with little or no provocation. Many minority-group members fear the gang in blue as much as they do criminals-and may take to the streets if the King case ends in acquittal.
The LAPD can hardly win, either way. Chief Daryl Gates, who promised to step down after the King affair, dismisses the incident as an "aberration," and rejects any suggestion that the police are out of control. But most people are unconvinced. A conviction won't end the concerns about the city's cops. And a victory for the defense's claim that the police followed established procedures will only seem to say that in L.A., brutality is S.O.P.
Photos: Testing whether brutality is S.O.P: Charged with assault, Officer Stacey Koon arrives in court; King after the incident last year (LESTER SLOAN-NEWSWEEK; ROGER SANDLER-PICTURE GROUP)